Shooting movies on film stock was an idea that was seemingly dead in the late 2000’s. But thanks to a handful of established directors like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, some films are still shot on film. And I’m siding with Tarantino and his argument – digital technology removes the experience of going to the theatre. Because this is the exact reason that Laika Studios, the extraordinarily talented stop motion film makers, are celebrating 10 years of original stories with the release of their new film, Kubo and the Two Strings. And I do recognize the irony of using Tarantino’s overly-passionate opinion of film over digital to push Laika Studio’s films – which are all digital. But there’s a point to be made here.
The point is that the Laika Studios has spent the last ten years consistently bringing in an audience against the undisputed king of animated films with Pixar Animation by making films with a seemingly outdated animation style. And it’s easy to see how Laika brings in their audience when you watch Kubo and the Two Strings. When you watch a stop motion animation like Kubo, his posture isn’t perfect when he walks, they way he turns his head isn’t a smooth motion. Stop motion isn’t perfect. And somehow Laika Studios is able to use stop motion to create a truly engaging character in Kubo. And with a long history of Pixar films under my belt, I wasn’t expecting that.
Kubo is an eleven year old boy trying to take care of his Alzheimer’s suffering mother. Kubo sits watching the sunset with his mother and he lays his head on her shoulder when he glances at her. These aren’t just animated characters, these are real characters. I saw the look of longing in Kubo’s eye for his mother to react and the smile on his face and I connected with Kubo. This moment defines the movie and credit to the Kubo and the Two Strings director, Travis Knight, for allowing the story to grow naturally and giving us the time that we need to connect with these characters.
Despite the fantastical of this story, Kubo is like a lot of kids in this day and age. Forced to be the provider and caretaker of the family. He makes the food, makes sure his mom eats, tries to entertain her, and then goes into town. And Kubo uses his guitar as the tool to focus his power – passed on from his magic using mother – to bring his pile of paper to life in a living-origami show. But he has to cut the show short when he has his village on the edge because he promised his mom he will always be home before night. Art Parkinson, best known as Rickon Stark of Game of Thrones, beings Kubo to life. Parkinson truly impressed me in his range that was every bit as equal to the extraordinary cast he was with. Art brings a passion to Kubo that felt as was every bit a Samurai as much as it is a kid that wants a family. Kubo is soon found by his aunts, played by Rooney Mara. It goes without saying that the girl with the dragon tattoo is no stranger to playing creepy and brings it with the dual role of The Sisters. Mara truly brings credence to that old saying that behind every great hero is a great villain. The Sisters are in a lot of ways what Kubo could become if they can get Kubo to his grandfather, The Moon King. The Sisters, each with their own distinct powers, are the right – and left hand – of The Moon King. Credit to Mara for bringing a legitimate feel to the hate The Sisters carry for Kubo’s mother – their sister – as they hunt Kubo.
I have to give absolute credit to Knight and Laika for not shying away from the the imagery these characters create. There’s a legitimacy throughout this film that truly helps you connect with these characters. Kubo’s relationship trying to live with his mother in her Alzheimer’s-like illness. A child trying to come to terms with growing up without father. And then there’s the fights our heroes are put through in their quest as the film progresses. Whether it’s The Sister’s or another creature in this world, giant eyeballs, skeleton. The idea of life and death is always there, and it’s never once dumbed down. Laika and Knight’s focus is always on the character first and the film is all the better for it. And all of this leads up to The Moon King. Ralph Fiennes’ Moon King is in the film for far to little. But credit to Fiennes, you believe this is a man who is willing to kill his grandson to keep his empire if Kubo doesn’t go with him. The film builds up the confrontation between The Moon King and Kubo. At this point, I couldn’t ignore the only real issues with the film anymore. I felt great deal of confusion as The Moon King tried to reason with Kubo and explaining the life he would have with The Moon King. Very little time was explaining where the Moon King came from, his family tree, or even why he was going after his grandson. That being said, it works as a climax because the film is entirely focused on Kubo, you’re behind him completely by this point.
Kubo isn’t alone in his journey after The Sister’s attack in the village. Charlize Theron portrays Monkey. Kubo’s little wooden monkey charm brought to life by his mother’s magic. Monkey is driven in her quest to protect Kubo from Moon King. It’s a role that plays to Theron’s strength’s to an almost motherly degree. Initially, Theron’s performance comes off a little too one-sided at times. But what’s interesting is that Knight’s eye for character allows Monkey to truly come into her own late into the second act and become a truly sympathetic character. Knight handled Matthew McConaughey in a similar to Monkey.
Matthew McConaughey first venture into voice acting is as truly unique as the performance. McConaughey plays Beetle, a former imperial guard to Kubo’s father, cursed to be a human beetle – his samurai armour has been turned into a beetle body and exoskeleton. He pledges himself to Kubo and becomes the heart of the film. McConaughey plays Beetle with an honesty and a lot of heart about him. It’s because of this you believe Beetle when he talks. When he sees greatness in Kubo, you believe him. McConaughey truly blew me away with how far he threw himself into his performance and steals the film. And that’s a hell of an achievement in film that has many great character driven performances as this film does.
Knight was able to bring out performances in his actors and his animators that can rival a live action film and creates a film that never sacrifices character for action and creates a truly unique experience in the theatre. To date, Laika’s released 4 feature films including Kubo and the Two Strings. Time will tell if Kubo can break the $100 million Laika’s previous 4 films have. And with a film as good as this, I have no doubt that it will. On the McConaughey rating scale, this film is five “alright, alright, alright’s” out of five. Or 5 out of 5 stars in the conventional rating system.