Wednesday, September 28, 2016

We Tell The Story

Year: 2016
Director: Travis Knight
Cast: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

I didn’t want to see Kubo and the Two Strings. Its trailers looked esoteric and incomprehensible, and nothing grabbed me. Luckily, I had a Sergio by my side, who always seems to have the exact opposite opinion about movie trailers. For once, he was right.

The fourth film by stop motion studio Laika (which debuted in 2009 with Coraline), Kubo and the Two Strings is a curious beast. It’s a Frankensteinian creation that grafts together half a dozen different family film genres into a lumbering, frequently clumsy monstrosity. And just like Frankenstein’s Monster before it, it might leave a trail of wreckage in its wake, but it snags your sympathies nonetheless.

Box office, bad.

In Kubo and the Two Strings, Kubo (Art Parkinson) lives in a remote village with his comatose mother, who only comes to life at night to tell him stories and remind him to always hide from the night sky, lest her sisters (both played by Rooney Mara) find him and pluck out his other eye. Oh yeah. Kubo is a descendant of the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), an immortal denizen of the sky who looks coldly down on humanity with blind eyes. Also, he stole one of Kubo’s eyes because this is a fairy tale and fairy tales are f**ked up.

Anyway, Kubo makes a living using his innate magical powers to animate origami figures with his guitar, using them to tell stories of heroic adventure to the townspeople, but he always has trouble coming up with endings. After attempting to contact his dead father on a spiritual holiday, he accidentally stays out too late and must escape the clutches of his pursuing aunts. His companions are Monkey (Charlize Theron), a protective totem given life as his mother’s final act, an origami samurai, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), an amnesiac samurai who served under Kubo’s father and has been cursed with an insect body. They must find three pieces of armor that will allow Kubo to face off against the Moon King.

You know, quest stuff.

And that’s the short version of the plot. For most of the first act, Kubo doesn’t immediately explain what’s going on, plunging the viewer into the world and allowing them to learn the details as the story goes on. This feels like a fun, interactive storytelling style until it doesn’t. It keeps on going, right on into the second and third acts, revealing that it probably wasn’t an intentional choice, just a symptom of the irreparable damage that has been done to this script.

Kubo clumsily attempts to blend a grand quest storyline with categorically juvenile comedy setups, and a feint toward Pixarian heartstring plucking, but the cartilage linking these pieces together is severely eroded. Kubo’s powers flourish and fade according to totally inexplicable rhythms that are nowhere to be found in the actual story. The screenplay attempts to wring out two facile Grand Twists that it doesn’t notice are the exact same as each other, and which could easily be predicted by even the toddlers in the audience if the story was actually comprehensible. And the third act is utter nonsense, bringing the script’s didactic tendency to cudgel us over the head with its themes to the forefront for a wholly unsatisfying boss battle. Or maybe it’s a clever tie-in to the fact that Kubo can never finish his stories. Either way, it sucks. But in spit of all this, Kubo is still kind of great.

Look, our other option this year is Ice Age 5. We takes what we gets.

Although the film stumbles through the smoking wreckage of its narrative, nearly everything in the moment works spectacularly well. It helps to ignore the big picture, but look: This is a movie for kids, who I daresay possess that skillset in spades. 

First off, let me qualify my statement about that juvenile humor. That’s not a detraction, merely an observation that this is a family film of the purest variety, with squeaky clean wholesome material that doesn’t give into the “one for the kids, one for the adults” impulse of almost all post-Shrek animated films. It’s actually quite amusing, and it’s fun to see Charlize Theron converting her badass persona honed in Mad Max into a razor-sharp ‘straight-man” role. And Matthew McConaughey lets off some of that hyper-serious Free State of Jones steam with a  light, breezy vocal performance that reminds us he’s actually capable of nailing comedy.

But what Kubo and the Two Strings boasts above anything else is truly exquisite stop-motion. Next to Pixar’s short film “Piper,” it’s the best animation of the year (not that Sausage Party provided tremendous competition), rendering scenes so gorgeous you just have to sit there, mouth agape, as they wash over you. I’m thinking particularly about the water animation, which is impossibly precise and fluid, pushing the boundaries of what the medium is capable of. They also lean toward their darker impulses, sprinkling in healthy doses of nightmare fuel with the blank porcelain design of the Moon Sisters and a delightfully creepy skeleton monster. The only dark spot on the film is the rendering of the old woman Kameyo (Brenda Vaccaro), which seems to have been imported from some student film. And not even a senior student.

And then, like, there’s emotions and stuff. I’m not convinced Kubo comes by its teary dramatics honestly, but I was openly weeping for about 50% of it, so maybe I was just in a mood. Really, at the end of the day, Kubo is a fun, stylish (that living origami concept is rockin’) family adventure and while it’s a bit muddled, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

TL;DR: Kubo and the Two Strings is a deliriously haphazard narrative, but it makes up for it with exquisite animation and genuine humor.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 990


  1. "And then, like, there’s emotions and stuff. I’m not convinced Kubo comes by its teary dramatics honestly, but I was openly weeping for about 50% of it, so maybe I was just in a mood."

    See, that's how I was with Finding Dory, which almost certainly doesn't come by it 100% honestly; but either way, that's still my favorite cartoon of the year...

    ...until Moana comes out. It's gonna blow the walls out, man. Clements and Musker!

    1. Oh, that comes out this year? I literally haven't given a passing thought to Moana. I hope it's good!