Directed by Travis Knight. Written by Marc Haimes (screenplay), Chris Butler (screenplay), Shannon Tindle (story) and Marc Haimes (story). Starring Charlize Theron (Monkey), Art Parkinson (Kubo), Ralph Fiennes (Moon King), and Matthew McConaughey (Beetle).
Bottom line: Kubo, you have master animators, why do you have to cover it all up with CGI. I’m not against CGI and Claymation, but what could’ve been a beautiful experience turned into a mediocre computer animated movie.
Kubo and the Two Strings opens to a raging ocean and some establishing shots of a woman performing some magic. After a beautiful scene, we cut to some years later. The woman, who is nigh comatose, is being taken care of by her twelve or thirteen years old son, Kubo. We watch as Kubo wakes up and makes breakfast before walking from their cave dwelling to the nearby town. Kubo provides for the family by telling stories. In one of the best scenes in the movie, he pulls out origami paper and his samisen (the same one that his mother held), and begins telling a thrilling story that captures the imagination of the town. When he plays and speak, the paper floats into the air and folds itself becoming a spider, a chicken, and a brave samurai. In the interest of the review, Yada yada yada, Kubo and his magical friends (a Monkey, and a Beetle) have to go on a magical journey to get three magical items to stop the villainous Moon King.
Kubo and the Two Strings was made by the same people as Coraline (wonderful!) and The Boxtrolls (terribly disappointing!). Kubo falls into the same trap as The Boxtrolls; they put too much CGI on top of the beautiful miniatures. What’s the point of the stop motion if I can’t tell what it is? In fact, a coworker of mine thought it was a CGI movie.
The thing about claymation and stop motion animation is that there is something unique about the texture. It’s a good thing to see that they are models. You never lose sight of the fact that what you are watching is a construct so it’s like you are being told a story (rather than have the fantasy that you are being transported to another world). There is a behind the scenes sequence during the credits; it shows the animators working on a large model. The film speeds up and the monster comes to life and interacts with the artists. It really gives an indication of the scale of the movie that would’ve otherwise been lost. There are other super cool behind the scenes clips on YouTube. One explains that these Eyeball creatures were made out of lights and thin metal (to create a really cool effect) and the motion was mapped to the rolling of a bowling ball. But, I ask, what’s the point? It feels kinda weird to ask but, what’s the point of going through all this work when the CGI flattens all of the absurdly detailed models. Another side effect of having so much CGI, is that there are jarring moments when the puppetry becomes the focal point of a scene.
In the case of Kubo, all of the animation is super smooth until you get to this old woman. Her really exaggerated facial expressions are jarring because one second she has squinting eyes and the next instant her mouth and eyes are totally open. The transition between the two looked like something of a blur. It didn’t feel like it fit with the rest of the movie. And, speaking of the feel of the movie, I wasn’t getting a good sense of space.
Let’s compare Kubo to Coraline. If you’ve never seen Coraline, it’s set in and around a pink mansion. In each of the scenes and in each of the rooms, you really get a sense of the world. The rooms are distinct enough that they stand on their own but they form a cohesive world and experience. In Kubo, we start off pretty good. We see his cave-home and how it connects to the village. Before too long, we cut to a snowstorm in “the badlands.” All we can see is white snow blowing about. We don’t know where we are in relation to the village nor do we even get the sense that it’s cold. Then we’re transported to a cavern, and then a forest, and then the “endless lake”? Sure they show transitions between the settings to connect them (aside from the initial cut to the badlands) but the sense of cohesion is missing.
The last point I’d like to make about Kubo is that I was disappointed by the general lack of music, or at least the role of music wasn’t what I was looking forward to. I mean, it’s called Kubo and the Two Strings, like two strings of a samisen (the music instrument that he plays). From the looks of the trailer, I thought he was going to be doing all sorts of magic with it. His instrument would be his magic wand, if you will. But, that wasn’t quite the case. He plays his samisen but it isn’t required to do magic. Some of my favorite parts of the movie focused on him playing but they were few and far between.
Overall, if you want to watch a really good stop-motion movie watch Coraline. If you’ve seen Coraline before, go watch it again. There were sequences in Kubo that that I really enjoyed but they didn’t stave off the disappointment I felt from the overuse of CGI, the lack of a sense of space, and the lack of music. If you are a big fan of stop motion animation, maybe I’d say give it a go (at a matinee at most) if for no other reason than see how it compares to Coraline and Nightmare Before Christmas. But then again, if you’re that big a fan of stop motion animation, you’ve probably already seen Kubo.
Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts on stop motion animation? For the longest time, I didn’t like it but I’m seriously warming up to it.