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Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

This article was originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad

Kubo and the Two Strings begins with Kubo's mother, navigating treacherous waves by slicing them in half with one melodramatic strum on her magical shamisen. The instrument has three strings, not two, but the title can wait. It's time to watch. Kubo's (Art Parkinson) narration warns us to do so closely.

"If you must blink, do it now."

That's a handy if redundant warning because who is going to blink during a Laika movie? The animated studio reliably crafts spectacularly intricate stop motion (with some CG boosting). When Kubo's mother splits the waves desperate to save the baby in her boat, it was hard not to think of Moses, twice over, both a babe in on the water and an ocean-parter.

Religiously suggestive folklore with magic turns out to be perfect fit for Laika because they always bring the eye popping images and movie magic...

We jump ahead a few years to Kubo's childhood. He's now a fine storyteller who magically commands origami with his mother's shamisen to help weave his tales. It doesn't take a genius to realize that the story he's repeatedly telling, about a samurai named Hanzo and an evil Moon King is his own (how much so he doesn't yet fully grasp) and the movie we're watching is also that story, folding itself into new shapes like the origami.

It's a pity then that the production is marred by unfortunate voice casting. Animated films have been undermining themselves for some years now with their heavy reliance on famous faces, when what they need is dexterous voices. McConaughey is funny at times in a dual role but his ultra familiar Texas drawl is quite an uncomfortable fit for an animated Asian story (reminding us frequently that we're watching yet another movie wherein Asian roles were cast with white actors). Worse still is Charlize Theron, a great actress surely, but she isn't great because of the timbre of her vocal chords. Her voicework in the film's most crucial dual role is quite dull. These decidedly unmagical familiar voices do the unusual and mysterious story no good whatsoever.

And besides, who honestly goes to animated movies based on how famous the voices are? They don't work that way unless it's a very unique case (like Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Dory) so studios are just wasting their money on huge stars.

The story, too convoluted for its own good perhaps, rescues itself from its arguably clumsy plot and off-voices with intermittent movie magic and interesting characters like a beetle warrior, a bossy monkey, the Moon king and his daughter witches in masks. Kubo is also blessed with a bravely melancholy undertow that sets its apart yet again from other animated films and actually let's it speak to themes of grief, death, and forgiveness. If you blink towards the final battle, (Kubo did warn you not to) you might miss the title bit when Kubo arms his shamisen with two special strings. It's a beautifully judged moment, braiding the film's themes into its climactic setpiece. 

Laika, the animated studio that brought us Kubo has now made four full length features. The first three Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014) each earned a deserved Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film. They've lost to either Pixar and Disney features each time. Kubo and the Two Strings is magnificent looking but, lacking the instant-hooks and clever conceit of a Zootopia or the behemoth success and easy heart of a Finding Dory, it doesn't look likely to change Laika's fate with the public or the Oscars. All things considered, even if I sadly admit that I think it's the least of their four features, Kubo is another reminder that we need Laika in our movie world. Their commitment to true originality, hands on craftsmanship, and in-movie specificity sets them far apart from all the corporate driven animation moviegoers regularly flock to in much greater numbers and that Oscar regularly rewards. Like Kubo, this tremendous group of artists are searching and striving to master their considerable magic. One year soon it will be their turn to triumph.

Director Travis Knight the president of Laika and also the director of Kubo

Animation: A  ...this might be the first time I'd ever recommend 3D; Story: C+; Voicework: C-; Grade: B/B-
MVP: The Animators of course but especially the Character Designers this time. All of the major characters are memorably designed and those masks on the evil Aunts are just spooky/terrific and also possibly a nod to Tim Burton & Henry Selick's influential Nightmare Before Christmas?
Oscar Chances: They've got a good shot at a nomination but it's tough to imagine a win in a year that's already highly competitive for the five slots even before Moana and the usual little seen foreign gems hit.

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Reader Comments (10)

Nat: Laika MIGHT win eventually, but that depends on something succeeding relative to the budget. Coraline barely broke even ($124 million on a $60 million budget) and their next two flopped ($107 and $109 million on $60 million budgets) and I don't see Kubo not doing similar business. Laika is DYING. And that hurts, so bad. Since the voice work was such a big problem, would a voice actor only cast have helped? Or Kubo being mostly silent with subtitles for every character except Takei's?

August 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I really did not have a problem with anything other than the horrible title choice and occasionally McConaughey's voice acting, and would happily call this a top half Laika (Paranorman and Boxtrolls were good not great, Coraline is still their finest hour).

Such a shame that this is the one getting killed by animation oversaturation, there were several moments of "I didn't know we could do that now."

August 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAR

No surprise about the bad casting. Anyone remember Ralph Fiennes' snooze of a vocal performance in Prince of Egypt?

August 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDrew

Volvagia -- Laika is not dying. Travis Knight (the director here and the CEO) is extremely wealthy (his dad is the founder of the Nike empire). so expect the bankrolling of Laika to continue. He's sworn off sequels so clearly his heart is not in it for money. Good for him!

August 22, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

There are very few Japanese American actors. There are very few Japanese Americans.

When you say "Asian" that covers Indians, Pakistanis, Vietnamese, Laotians, Koreans, Chinese, and on and on. So everytime I see "why didn't they cast Asian actors", it's exasperating like we all are the same. This is voice acting. The movie's going to be dubbed into dozens of other languages and you can bet "Asian" actors will be cast to cover the versions in "Asian" territories. Ya know we don't all speak the same language, have the same culture, come from the same country..

McConaughey doesn't have a Texas drawl in this. I'm a Texan Vietnamese and I know my Texas drawls and my "Asian" actors. You need to get your ears checked. And he had great comic timing and got big laughs in the audience. Which was necessary because otherwise the story would have been so relentlessly sad.

August 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterWiley

@Wiley- There are plenty of Japanese American voice actors capable of delivering vocal performances that are good for this movie. While I do agree it's not necessary for vocals actors to match the ethnicity for their roles, I think it's critical that accents and inflections match what the roles call for. McConaughey was not that.

And why not cast a Japanese American voice actor to make the role more convincing? There's no need to market animated films with big acting names, so it's the perfect chance for non-white voice actors to shine. Because when they do get the chance to shine, they nail their roles like Ming Na Wen in Mulan.

August 22, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterbeyaccount

I know her ancestry is Korean, not Japanese, but...

I was continually struck with the thought that Kubo's mother bore a striking similarity to Sandra Oh... How cool would it have been if they'd cast her?

August 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul from Perth

"... the least of their four features"? Ouch. Easily the best of them IMO. The casting situation is unfortunate, yes, but that was merely an afterthought to a tremendously spun adventure yarn. The visual storytelling is so on point, they could have gotten just about anybody (however poorly chosen) to do voices and I'd still be rapt.

September 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterN8

I see it when i Have no work but when i search in google play i find this amazing app ad i share it with you

October 24, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterhouriya

I have been reading your reviews for quite some time and honestly, in my opinion, you are a small-minded hack at best. Convoluted story? The story itself is a fairy tale and has all the elements of a well-crafted fairy tale. Both monkey and beetle are likable characters. The trouble with a guy like you is that you think to highly of yourself and this is often why you give good movies bad reviews. Maybe you need too come down off the perch you have erected for yourself and just understand what you are watching. This is a fun movie that is not trying to win any academy awards. This movie was made simply to entertain and if you were not such a pompous ass you might enjoy more of the movies you critique. I go to see the movies you badmouth and almost always enjoy them. The difference between you and me is this, I go to be entertained I don't go to try and show the rest of the world how clever I am. Critics are like hecklers at a show they do nothing to benifit the people at the show they just make enjoying the show difficult because they can't keep thier fat traps shut and need to be the center of attention.

April 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam Reust

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