So over the last week, I’ve reviewed Finding Nemo and The Secret Life Of Pets and while they vary in quality, they both share one thing. They are standard 3D animated films. Sure, they are different films in terms of its plot and the humour, but the way they are presented is now the standard for kids films after superseding 2D ones in the early 2000s. However while that is the standard, that’s not to say other studios aren’t doing different things. One of them is Studio Laika who have been making stop motion films for the last few years and they are usually the best. So can Kubo and the Two Strings match that quality?
Kubo (Art Parkinson, Dracula Untold) is a young boy who lives in exile with his mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road) as his grandfather (Ralph Fiennes, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2) wants to kill him and take his remaining eye. Eventually, they are found and Kubo must go on the run with Monkey, a charm brought to life by his mother, in order to survive.
So yeah, let’s get the obvious out of the way. This is a gorgeous film. I declared in my Box Trolls review that Studio Laika do the best stop motion animation, yes better than Aardman, because they are unafraid to make spectacular set pieces despite the massive difficulty in doing so. And that continues here. Not only does the main strength of stop motion still exist, the overall charm of the style and the fact everything feels real because it is actually there in front of you, but its combined with the brilliant set pieces I didn’t think was even possible in this artform. Of course there is some CGI in this, and unfortunately it is pretty obvious, but most of it is real and brilliant.
And it’s combined with a brilliant soundtrack. As with the style and the plot, it is heavily influenced by Japanese folklore, something that isn’t usually dealt with by Western studios. That’s more because Studio Ghibli used to do it perfectly but now that they are out of the game, Laika are stepping in. And the music is simply wonderful to hear, obviously influenced but still unique enough which means you aren’t distracted by said influences. With the two strings of the title referring to the guitar type thing Kubo has, I’m sure it has a proper name but I don’t know what it is, music is key to the plot’s progression so it’s wonderful for it to be so good. I’m considering buying the soundtrack it’s that good.
As mentioned, the plot is also influenced by Japanese culture, so there’s a lot of Samurais, spirits and eventually dragons. When the film delves into this, it’s brilliant because again this is something we don’t see much in Western animation, again why challenge Studio Ghibli when they were in their pomp, and everything is treat with the upmost of respect. You don’t get the feeling that this is just some Westerner taking the mick out of someone else’s culture. However its the basic storytelling that lets everything down. The twists are ridiculously obvious and fail to make the emotional impact they should because you thought they were a given and not meant to be secret.
And the other main weakness is unfortunately Charlize Theron when she is voicing the Monkey. It simply doesn’t fit. This is no fault of Theron who does very good with the material, it’s just that her voice never matches the body it is coming out of. This is simply an error on either the director for not getting Theron to change her voice so it fits or the casting agent for not picking the right actor. Because of this, you can’t invest in Monkey as when you hear her, you realize it’s Charlize Theron and the verisimilitude is broken. It’s something you can’t get away from because Monkey is around for 80% of the film and it’s a huge shame.
And this isn’t a problem across the board because everyone else is fantastic. Art Parkinson is a brilliant choice as the lead as he has fun with the role and playing up his childish moments while converying that he does have the strength inside to take on the villain. But that said, the MVP is Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar) who plays Beetle, an amnesiac Samurai. He gets the best lines and McConaughey sells every line perfectly, meaning you will laugh constantly. With a story that is very serious and at times rather dark, he is needed to lighten the mood and make sure kids will still stick with it.
It’s sad to report that Kubo and the Two Strings does not match the likes of Coraline and personally, I prefer the flawed Box Trolls to this too. I know complaining about a bad voice choice and saying it takes the whole film down with it seems very nasty and bit over reacty, but it’s constantly there, taking you out of the film and meaning you can’t be fully invested. I’m sure if I could get past that, I’d adore this film and the style and music are brilliant, but I can’t. I am very sorry.