Kubo and the Two Strings is a Japanese set adventure yarn of a boy who must learn to defend himself against his evil aunties who seek to steal his eye because… err… “he won’t be able to look into another one’s soul again”? Ummm… yeah. I’m not even going to be reviewing that bullshit. Let’s just move on.
Crafted is a perfect word for Kubo, as desktop wallpapers go, this should be quite high in the list, it’s conventionally pretty for nearly every shot. Not that cinematography lives and dies by prettiness, there’s more to the skill than simply making “things look nice”. But for what little Kubo does have going for it, the effort put into the animation truly blew me away. What Kubo doesn’t have going for it is everything else but the prettiness. Superficial might best describe the flick. Any great artistic merit Kubo had going for it is diminished by unfortunate and crippling screenplay. A kids film isn’t seen as an excuse for laziness for Laika, in the past they’ve barely even taken kids into consideration, e.g. Coraline (and that’s a good thing). 2009 might’ve been a scary time for kids at the cinema, but either someone got scolded or Laika got greedy because Kubo and the Two Strings is just a panderthon of condescension. What’s worse is that in our 3D-CGI-clutching industry this is probably be the best stop motion film we’re going to get for a while (until Wes Anderson’s return to the genre), and if making animated movies were just about exercising the size of your efforts Laika would be tough competition, but when Song of the Sea and The Fantastic Mr Fox are trouncing the competition with less to little practice in medium (respectively), Laika need to sort their shit out and up their game (and fire their screenwriters (director too)).
If I’m stretching my positive outlook on this film, I’d say the first 15 minutes are nearly watchable. But I have my gripes. For instance, the camera occasionally moves in such a way that serves nothing, only to showcase technical capabilities of their stop motion department. A crane shot spins around a cave to reveal… nothing and it gave this feeling of – nothing. I assume the idea is that because locations are hand-crafted I’m supposed to be cinematically impressed. Objectively I’m impressed. But simply put, these shots don’t immerse us into the story because they do nothing but simply exist to boast. That said, as surface level beauty goes, it is quite easy on the eye. Of all the desktop wallpapers on offer, my favourite has to be the sunset on the lake and the trees in the cemetery. Honestly humbling. And that’s about as sincere as the first 20 minutes get because everything else is an in your face spoonfeeding trainwreck. I can’t even begin to air my frustrations at some of these slaps to the face. Heavy handed repetitive dialogue, overtly pandering direction choices and fucking abysmal storytelling. I’ll just take them one by one shall I?
The phrase “exposition dump” doesn’t even cover half an inch of how fucking transparent the dialogue is in the first 20 minutes. We’re introduced to the film through a random use of voice over since we never hear it again – Kubo (we assume, at this point) begins with “pay close attention – waffle waffle blah blah – this story is meaningful and it’s so complex that you might miss something”. Besides the fact that I enjoy the “If you must blink, do it now” line, there’s way too much waffle here, and not nearly enough syrup. And we’re about to hear it all again in about ten minutes (but better). This introduction is a numbingly bland, uncharismatic snooze. Kubo’s monologue 2.0 gives his words much more justice, setting Kubo up as a character and a storyteller while demonstrating his magical abilities and telling us the story of his father. The first monologue merely attempted to aggrandize the film; dictating to the audience that they must pay attention since the film requires your undivided attention, apparently it’s that important. I would’ve been ok with that, if it were in any way true. Since everything is spelt out for us and we’re constantly having our hand held, it makes it hard to appreciate the story when everything is so intent on forcefully dragging you in a linear and restrictive direction (kinda like Brooklyn did).
Taking a break from my critique of the dialogue, I want to momentarily address the film’s sense of pace. It has none. Kubo is a rushed mess. This is detrimental to the story and our experience of the world in which the film exists. We have no time to indulge in the world. I’m going to reference Song of the Sea, the best animated film of the last ten years, undoubtedly. It’s an example of a well paced experience. In the massive list of things it does right, the pacing is one of the most important reasons why it works so wonderfully. But what’s more important is that when I say pace I don’t mean narrative pace only, I also mean pace of editing. Song of the sea has a gentle pace, it’s gently guiding you through the locations, you can take in the scenery. That feeling of exploring a world is massively important for making a world seem alive and engaging. Here we get exactly that, you travel up and down this fantasy world at a comfortable pace. This doesn’t just have an effect on how much of the world you can take in, it also adds to your perception of distance throughout their arduous journey. Kubo’s plot structure is more reminiscent of a video game than a journey through a world. You have the home level, the snow level, the cave level (the skeleton level), the sea level/first mini boss, the dojo level/second mini boss and the end level/final boss. It’s all so disconnected. And because of how fast it rushes to the next level, I don’t remember a single detail of the environment. I only remember what the objective is, and how they completed it. The cinematography doesn’t help. When almost every shot is focused entirely on the character and rarely breaks away to include the environment in frame, our sole attention is constantly directed at following movement and action; this got boring, frustratingly quick. Judging from Laika’s behind the scenes stuff I think I can estimate why this might be. Every time I saw a BTS clip, I saw a camera, a model and a lot of green. Each characters had this amazing amount of work put into the detail in their movements, with the camera, 100% of the time, pointed straight at them. Seemingly, each element was treated as an external pieces to the other. Environments were probably inserted via green screen later, supposing that they were considered to be merely secondary; prioritising the models is detrimental to the building of an environment inhabited by living breathing characters, animated or otherwise.
The sloppy direction is noticeable, and pointing out every occasion there’s a mishap isn’t going to get us anywhere new. Travis Knight, CEO of Laika, has never directed an animated film and his ambitious production effort is admirable, but often mistaken.
What’s disappointing is the potential Kubo held. Tragically Kubo is a movie that is trying hard and I would never call Knight a slacker for all his hard work. However, the situation just happens to be that other films (Anomalisa, Song of the Sea etc.) are elevating animation visually and intellectually. Kubo has too many obvious and mechanical moments of 101 storytelling that better writers mask craftily. Kubo exists as nothing more than the desire to be artistic. The script is plagued with lines like “People like an ending” – an obvious meta reference to the film’s narrative holes at that time. “What must we do Mr. Kubo?” – a lazy and convenient exposition dump between the mother and Kubo; we’re practically told that he can’t stay out past sundown and one scene later he’s being convinced to stay out past sundown and then he does exactly what he said he wouldn’t, half a scene later. Between the dump of exposition / promise keeping, he manages to do exactly that one and a half scenes later. Not to mention that this is a conversation between mother and son, surely they’ve had this conversation before; wouldn’t Kubo already know this stuff by now?. It’s shit like this that makes Kubo a prime example of lazy, forced and contrived by-the-numbers scriptwriting. We’re constantly getting information pedalled out to us in the least imaginative fashion. Which is a shame because the script excels in so many little ways (mostly through Beetle). Moments of compassion and kindness, humour and affection left a big impact on me. Kubo’s relationship between his two protectors is deeply moving. Watching him fall in love with his protectors is sweet and sincere. Watching his protectors fall in love is heartwarming and cute when you realise what’s really going on (Spoilers: his protectors are really his parents). And then the film overdoes it. After numerous attempts to make Beetle the comedic relief, we grow tired of it; especially when idiotic comedy and cheap laughs come at the expense of ruining the intensity of potentially gripping scenes. This marks a shift in Laika’s stance. A company that once brought the nightmarish and uncompromising world of Coraline to the eyes of children are now sugarcoating the mildest of dangerous situations. Where did Laika’s cajones go?
Well, their cajones didn’t completely go away. The sisters were pretty great; they bring a genuine atmosphere that’s chilling and unnerving. McConaughey’s performance was pretty decent; occasionally he slipped into McConaughey mode, but maintained a decent performance throughout. Theron was useless; this Hollywoodian idea that celebrities make good voice actors needs to stop. Her voice in no way matched the monkey, completely miscast; it needed someone with more -(and this will sound stupid) monkeyisms. She just wasn’t selling me the character by simply using her normal performative tone. Voice acting requires more than just acting, it has to come from a place where it feels like the character is acting. Great voice actors make you believe that their character is being played by an actor that exists in that universe. We shouldn’t believe that Charlize Theron is voicing the monkey, we should believe that the monkey exists and we’re getting that monkey’s performance. Giving an animated character a voice isn’t enough, we have to trick the audience into believing that we’re watching animated actors. Watching Charlize Theron perform is different from listening to Charlize Theron perform, and in turn is different from watching/listening to Kristen Wiig etc. perform. Every actor gives a unique performance in one way or another, animated performances is no different.
For everything that Kubo is trying to do in visual effort, it lacks in meaning, design, immersion, intelligence and entertainment. There’s a lot I didn’t cover here because I simply ran out of time. I’m not one to get caught up on niggly little things, but the culmination of all these niggles and the detrimental effect this has on the film overall is too significant to ignore. Kubo and the Two Strings is deeply flawed in nearly every level. But don’t let that stop you from appreciating the effort that went into making this. If there’s one thing I’d like to take away from Kubo it’s exactly that. It’s just a shame about all the hand holding; my furiosity levels hit the roof when the second sister cack-handedly told us something that should’ve left as an interpretation of the film was in fact the truth all along. Not only did it ruin the idea that the film had a deeper level, trusting the audience to get it on their own if they were paying attention, it just assumed that we weren’t paying attention or that we were too stupid to get it and spelt it out for us like we were 4 years old. I’ve already spoiled it for you so I’ll just address it directly: the beetle is his dad and the monkey is his mom. This right here is the single worst case of undermining the intelligence of the audience I’ve seen in years. What could’ve been a pretty neat and intelligent idea got slapped on a plate and thrown into our laps instead (this is Kubo and the Two Strings in a nutshell).