The spirit of adventure is a hard one to properly recreate. Many in the past have tried, with varying results. The people behind movies such as Coraline and The Boxtrolls take their turn to create a story focused on stories, and what THE POWER OF EMOTIONS can do to drive a story from a passing tale to an epic myth. Kubo and the Two Strings takes the intimate art of stop-motion animation and blends it into everything one would expect from an Eastern-inspired fantasy adventure.
Kubo begins with a flashback sequence, as most epics go. It vaguely describes the conflict and sets up the current world shown afterwards. A young boy named Kubo, who is somewhere around ten years-old, spends his days telling tales to the people in the village below his home in a small cave, high in the mountains. There is something extraordinary about Kubo: he has a gift. He can manipulate inanimate objects by playing a mystical stringed instrument (which I suspect is a sitar), but typically only does so with small pieces of paper. This power of his, and a growing curiosity about his estranged origins, leads Kubo into breaking a rule his mother had set for him: never stay out after dark. The consequences of this lead Kubo into a story he would have to live through, and hopefully conclude it with a happy ending.
If there is anything about this film that needs to be addressed first, it’s the stop-motion animation. It is not uncommon among moviegoers to be enthralled by the special effects or overall pizzazz movies these days can produce. However, Kubo adds a little bit more manpower to its visual display by going with stop-motion animation, where each model is positioned in precise places, moved slightly to create the illusion of motion over time. To imagine the amount of time it took to create a 90-minute film, complete with fast-paced action scenes and a buffet of colorful environments, using nothing but stop-motion is almost as miraculous as the events that take place within the movie’s plot. While at first, I felt the change of slow facial expressions on characters’ faces came off as stiff, I eventually warmed up to the display of deficiency as a manner of style over substance. This style is admittedly more of an acquired taste than anything, as I’m sure some won’t be fond of seeing characters move slower than sixty frames per second.
Aside from the animation, the overall style of both physical and emotional atmosphere is by and large the most engrossing part of this film. While a little stiffness from characters’ facial expressions may be off-putting, you’ll soon forget about it completely when met with the impressive amount of displays Kubo has to offer throughout its adventure. Emphasizing nature in almost every regard, whether it be frigid snowstorms, stormy seas, or a sun-soaked desert, Kubo has the means to dazzle the audience with every sense of nature the word has to offer, both from a rural and urban sense. And if Asian architecture is your fix, you may as well purchase a ticket now. Even more, this sense of style isn’t simply meant for show, but it also combines with the strength of the central character, Kubo, as his ability to manipulate paper blends tremendously well with the style of animation. It feels as though everything on-screen has a point, whether to set a tone or to symbolize specific character traits.
Chances are, those already hearing of this movie are aware of all the spectacle its creating for its animation style. But what about the plot? What about the characters? Are they worth the trip for those not interested in dazzling aesthetics? It really depends on taste.
What Kubo has with its visual gallantry, it lacks with its originality. It is not a story that one hasn’t seen before if they’re familiar with fantasy adventures. The flashback opening. The set-up of the adventure. The [insert number here] items the hero must collect to compete against the main antagonist. The trials before each item. The partners gained along the way, and the bonds that grow between them. All of this and more is front and center with almost naive gusto. While the film does what it can to alleviate the almost by-the-book progression with THE POWER OF EMOTIONS, it leaves the film’s weak spots open in all regards to experienced viewers. The movie becomes predictable and less immersive, almost in the same way recent Pixar films become so. Only the difference here is that it doesn’t copy other films within its studio’s library, but rather chooses not to deviate from other films within the same genre. There were many points I had correctly predicted the outcome of simple foreshadows placed sporadically throughout the adventure. While this sort of criticism may not bother some, to those who can see a scene before it arrives, it takes out a lot of the impact or surprise the movie could have given without the proper insight.
I’ve seen a few reviews of the movie before seeing it myself that felt the movie was too dark or boring for kids. Rotten Tomatoes‘ critic consensus for the film even calls it “bravely melancholy.” To some degree, I feel this label of darkness is misconstrued. There are definitely dark elements to Kubo, but it’s an otherwise uplifting story about learning to cope with death and the impact a family can have on struggling individuals. It is without a doubt a very emotional movie, one that may seem a little too sugary-sweet for those persuaded by certain reviews calling it too mature or gritty. This emotional overload, I feel, is properly placed for the set-up of the film, and never overstayed its welcome until the very end. I was immersed enough with the film to not be bothered by THE POWER OF EMOTIONS, but the end scene is almost disgustingly corny.
The cast of Kubo slightly makes up for the plot they’re thrown into. One of the things I despise in the film industry is when a young character is voiced by an older teenager or adult with a squeaky voice, instead of an actual child. Kubo is voiced by, and sounds like, a child, for which I am eternally grateful for. His personality is pretty typical for a child; curious, a little bratty, and good-moraled. I feel the film does better as a fictional, moral-centered piece from the eyes of a child than anything, as they’re more inclined to learn from their actions and are otherwise ignorant of the world around them. It also serves well that Kubo isn’t cracking jokes every fifteen seconds. That honor belongs to Beetle, a character met along the way who is dealing with amnesia (just like everyone else in the movie). He’s the token comic relief character, but also serves as a male role model for Kubo and provides a good balance to the group along with Monkey, the serious, rough around the edges caretaker of Kubo. This core of characters isn’t entirely impactful by movie’s end, but builds good chemistry along the way to keep the humor and scenes of peril more enjoyable.
Another issue with Kubo lies within the pacing. I felt the length of the quest was over far too quickly, and the build-up to each ancient item felt a blink away from one another. Combine this with the formulaic outline of the plot and Kubo becomes a tad forgettable along the way. I feel this movie could have done better to add maybe twenty more minutes of screentime to help create more tension between each item, or cut out a tad from the beginning to add more for the adventure. If that wasn’t enough, I felt a few liberties were taken with the plot to proceed the adventure far too quickly. Events that happen during the adventure, especially events dealt with with magic, are hardly explained in the long run, leaving viewers to plug in the holes themselves. It’s magic. It can do anything it wants.
In terms of story and structure, Kubo is another one for the pile of fantasy adventure films that exist in this realm of reality. In terms of visual splendor, it’s definitely worth seeing. Not often do I recommend a film simply for its visuals, but Kubo‘s visuals tend to smooth over a lot of the flaws that come with the film itself. It feels that magical, even if it doesn’t feel so afterwards. The most this film did for me was inspire me to write more stories (or continue the ones I left unfinished). That in itself is a good enough feat for a recommendation. Just be sure not to blink, and to take in everything you possibly can. Or you might miss it.
Final Score: 7/10