Looking back on… Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Director: Travis Knight
Starring: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes

Written by Nathan
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I have a few apologies to make; Laika Studio, I am so, so sorry that I have wrongfully dismissed your animation style over the years; Travis Knight, I am so, so sorry I didn’t understand your artistry sooner; Kubo & The Two Strings, I am so, so sorry it took me all these months to realise your beauty. And now, if I may, a few thank yous; Laika Studio, thank you for your decision to champion this eclectic, stunningly hand-crafted animation style; Travis Knight, thank you for your creativity and craftsmanship in creating this beautiful piece of cinema; Kubo & The Two Strings, thank you for being the stop-motion feature that opened my eyes to the wonder of your technology and accomplishments. Knight, in his directorial debut nonetheless, has devised a magnificent, magical and enchanting animation wise beyond its years and inventive before its times. While not typically my animation style of choice, the visionary Kubo has won my heart and installed a great appreciation for this style of cinema.

Young Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) uses his magical powers and the medium of music to tell stories to the people of the village. When a vengeful spirit from the past comes for Kubo’s one remaining eye, he must locate a magical suit of armour belonging to his late father to defeat them, accompanied by Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Parkinson, Theron and McConaughey are joined by Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara and George Takei as the voice cast of the 2016 release, which earned itself two Oscar nominations and a BAFTA win earlier this year.

First and foremost, Kubo & The Two Strings is a film of immense beauty and flair, a hand-crafted stop-motion animation that dazzles you with every single frame. Enchanting visuals captivate you from beginning to end, oozing with visual delights that masterfully demonstrate the possibilities and opportunities offered by the animation style and format, with colours popping and gradients helping to perfect the Eastern-inspired setting and backdrop that is so refreshing to see on screen in this way. A plethora of beautifully-realised set pieces feature meaning that Kubo is a continually moving vehicles that manoeuvres between various luscious settings – from graveyard scenes to underwater sequences – each as majestic and visually sumptuous as the previous. It is a visually-rich, vibrant and splendid piece of cinema, all of which is terrifically anchored by the directing talents of Knight. If you think of all directors as painters, those helming live-action film at least have a canvas to build their world from, where as animators have absolutely nothing: every single element you seen on the screen has been deeply-considered and purposefully placed in the frame by Knight, with stop-motion animation in particular impressing for the craft and additional skill required to present them on screen. In only his debut feature, Knight’s accomplishments are outstanding, splendidly designing a tale that is a marvel to behold, even in all wackiness and individuality.

Art Parkinson brings both a strength and vulnerability to the character of Kubo, our titular eyepatch-wearing boy setting out on this fantastical adventure with wonder and danger at every turn. Through his voice performance alone, we instantly connect to his charm,  from the very opening words “if you must blink, do it now” to his loving relationship between him and his mother. Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey provide quirky performances as Kubo’s guides, imaginatively taking the form of a monkey and a beetle throughout Kubo’s adventure. Rooney Mara lends her voice to Karasu and Washi, threatening sisters revealed to be Kubo’s evil aunts, conveying a genuinely ominous and sinister imagining of the villains, while Ralph Fiennes brings his Lord Voldemort to proceedings, again baleful in his delivery and both terrifically installing life into these villains. These well-defined character help communicate some of the challenging themes presented to audiences (primarily families) including love, death, loss, forgiveness and acceptance, married into the main narrative with ease. Travis Knight is once again responsible for this subtle pervading nature of the themes and ideas, with a deft understanding of when and where to restrict and push these intricate themes to suit the variety of people in the audience. Incorporating themes like this in an animation is difficult enough but Knight ensure it actually film enriches the film with a universal message that makes it relatable to all.

Less of a resounding success though, is the script and narrative itself. It certainly is an adventurous tale that aims high but it doesn’t quite match the inventiveness of the aesthetics. It is during the middle stretch where the film’s uneven script and misguided pacing becomes more of a problem, very occasionally losing its focus and your attention begins to drift away. Another issue arises with the film’s tone; whenever it attempts any humour, the comedy elements come off as entirely stale and wooden, particularly when delivered by McConaughey whose character is grating rather than funny and charming as intended. The childish jokes never align with the more complex themes and ideas, feeling unbalanced and underdeveloped and it occasionally relies on familiar conventions too heavily, as if it wavers in the face of its uniqueness and attempts to converge on to more conventional ground to keep audiences on side. While it is disappointing that Kubo doesn’t feel quite so assured in regards to its script as its visuals and themes, that doesn’t distract from how terrific the film generally is and while the script is never as good as it could be, it is more than solid enough. 

With beautiful theme work, a solid voice cast and stunning visuals, married together with a wonderful score from Dario Marianelli and majestic direction from Travis Knight, Kubo & The Two Strings may not be the most traditional of animations in the vein of Disney and/or Pixar, but it sure it an enchanting one. It’s uniqueness encourages it to stand out of a crowded marketplace and the tactile stop-motion project is one that will be imprinted on your heart for weeks. Despite some uneven script work and awkward pacing, almost everything else achieves the level of enjoyment every animation should strive to be, with Travis Knight’s debut feature promising a fantastic career ahead for the American director. 2016 was a bumpy year for animations but the textured and glorious Kubo & The Two Strings stands with the very best, encouraging my own exploration of sub-genres and styles beyond my usual picks.  To paraphrase a warning from our lead protagonist, repeated throughout this film, if you must blink, do it before the film starts as you won’t want to miss a frame of this utterly beautiful film.

★★★★★★★★☆☆
(8/10)

Summary: Travis Knight’s Kubo & The Two Strings is a visually sumptuous showcase of the wonders of stop-motion animation, as well as a thematically profound piece of art, crafting a tremendously impressive and beautifully artistic hand-crafted directorial debut feature.

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