Kubo and the Two Strings is one of those frustrating movies that starts off great, then gets worse and worse as it goes on. I’d go as far as to say it’s probably better than I’m giving it credit for because the ending is so much weaker than the start.
The story follows Kubo (Art Parkinson), who has grown up in solitude with his mother, a powerful but severely depressed enchantress. Her sisters (Rooney Mara) and father, Raiden the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), stole Kubo’s left eye when he was an infant, and he lives his life hiding from the night sky in fear that they will come and take the other. One night trying to commune with his late father’s spirit, Kubo stays out past dark. The twins find him, and his mother sacrifices herself to save him. Kubo’s only hope to fight the Moon King is to find three artifacts of legend with the help of a monkey (Charlize Theron) brought to life by his mother’s magic and a giant amnesiac beetle (Matthew McConaughey).
The big deal with Kubo and the Two Strings is that it’s produced by Laika, the dedicated stop-motion animation studio that debuted with 2009’s Coraline. One look at the numbers will tell you these people do things the right way — Kubo is just their fourth feature, all with a uniform $60 million budget despite uniform commercial success and critical acclaim. The worst Rotten Tomatoes score the company has is The Boxtrolls’ 75 percent, and their lowest gross is ParaNorman’s $107 million.
The thinking is that its stop-motion animation, which is clearly very digitally enhanced, is somehow superior to other kinds of animation because it’s more time-consuming, and therefore the movie is better, but that’s just not the case with Kubo. The animation is great, but the story they tell with it is poor and not engaging.
The most annoying thing about this movie is how clearly aimed it is at younger viewers. It’s got some dark aspects with the dead parents and meditations on God and the afterlife, but it’s also got the giant beetle with an endless stream of eye-rolling one-liners like “oh foot!” instead of “oh fuck!” The movie is deliriously predictable, dropping obvious hints at its twists and then continuing to do so ad nauseam on the assumption that you didn’t get it the first time. This is what leads me to believe the movie is aimed at not just young viewers, but viewers who have literally never seen a movie before.
Despite animation being the main selling point, it gets less and less intricate visually as it goes on. The best part is the beginning, when Kubo is using a magic banjo to manipulate his oragami into playing out a grand opera, and there’s some great detail around everyone’s eyes. But as the movie wears on, the composition itself starts to get boring, and there are even some pretty glaring errors at the end, particularly in the final battle. What details are paid attention to seem less oriented toward making the best movie possible and more oriented toward drawing as much attention to themselves as possible to convince viewers of the movie’s hand-made authenticity, even though most of it could have been done just as well by a computer.
On the flipside, the movie does have a lot of merit. At just 101 minutes, it manages to feel like the epic journey that it is, and all the set pieces are fantastic conceptually even if I don’t like the execution on the later ones.
Kubo and the Two Strings takes risks, and it deserves a lot of credit for that. There’s a lot of creativity at play here. This movie tries things, and they don’t all work, but there’s clearly a lot of creativity that went into it. It’s a shame that it’s so bent on holding viewers’ hands.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.