More than live action or traditional animation filmmaking, Claymation movies always seem like there’d be a much greater danger of getting too ‘in your head’ during production. Because each frame is individually molded and shot, the format seems like it could lead to filmmakers losing sight of what’s truly important. Thankfully, Claymation has had a rich and successful history, but that doesn’t mean that the style is fool-proof.
Kubo and the Two Strings comes from Laika Studios, the same company responsible for Caroline (2009), Paranorman (2012) and The Boxtrolls (2014). Directed by president/CEO Travis Knight, the story follows a young boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson), who lives alone with his mother in Japan. Every day, he travels to the center of town to tell an amazing story, with the assistance of his magical paper-monster making abilities. However, he never reaches the end of his story, due to the necessity to head home every day at sundown.
As these stories become a very central part of Kubo’s identity, Kubo and the Two Strings is very focused on the idea of narrative and endings. In fact, aside from conversation about the role of family, storytelling is the major theme of the film. So one would hope that when Kubo’s evil aunts (Rooney Mara) visit and destroy the town, and Kubo has been sent away to a far-off land and journeys with an anthropomorphic monkey (Charlize Theron), and beetle (Matthew McConaughey), there would be something revelatory said about the subject. One would hope.
Written by Mark Haimes, Chris Butler and Shannon Tindle, Kubo’s emphasis on narrative flounders because its grasp on narrative seems to be somewhat limited. As the story progresses, the structure seems almost a little too obvious. Kubo and his crew must collect all three magical pieces of armor to defeat Kubo’s evil grandfather (Ralph Fiennes), and this journey takes them through fantastical lands, and they learn incredible lessons along the way. It’s the type of plot that could be summed up in 20 minutes, but much like Kubo’s stories, pride themselves in excess.
What makes this journey all the more tedious is that the characters don’t seem to be making any active choices. Kubo and his animal family just sort of happen upon the next plot point, and so on. There’s no sense of growth or control within the characters, and so the audience is just expected to accept the changes each of the characters make. I know that movies are about more than just the plot, but since Kubo focuses so intensely on storytelling, one would hope they’d do a good job with that aspect.
But much like Kubo’s stories, there is a visual element to the film’s storytelling. This area is where the Claymation gets to shine. As always, Laika Studios excels in creating a beautiful and surrealistic world to house its clay figurines. However, while some designs are very inspired, others (notably our beetle friend) are very unsettling, and not in an intentional way.
Similarly, while some of the action sequences are quite surprising, others seem to be constructed in an uninteresting fashion. The film takes a strong tonal choice, one much more subdued than their previous works, but doesn’t appear to back it up with anything truly breathtaking.
However, I should add that maybe my frustrated perspective comes from a bad screening experience (that’s the only thing I can suggest, considering the rave reviews the movie has gotten). I saw the film in 3-D, and considering how much of the movie takes place at night, an extra layer of darkness with the glasses makes the whole movie hard to see.
Finally, an all-but required note on casting. Because Kubo takes place in Japan, one would expect the cast would be less… white. As always, it is not my place to be the voice on appropriate diversity and inclusion in the film, but although George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa both play minor roles in the movie, it seems like a big problem that every other actor I’ve mentioned in parentheses is Caucasian.
With all of these reasons to be frustrated with the movie, by the time Kubo and the Two Strings reaches its long-awaited climax, the audience is running low on reasons to care. Sure, we want to know how it ends – everyone loves an ending – but sometimes the journey is more important than the result. And Kubo’s journey is severely lacking.
But since Kubo and the Two Strings is a kid’s movie, I thought I’d ask my 9-year-old sister Elizabeth (though you can call her Quill), what her thoughts were:
This movie is very funny and magical. It also makes you feel very powerful. Some parts were exciting and scary. Fun fact: 3 seconds of the movie took a month to make! I did love the movie, but I like other movies better.