There are few things as beautiful on the big screen as the work of Laika. The stop-motion animated studio has already made three gorgeous fantasy films in their unique style and the latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, is the grandest and prettiest one yet. Unfortunately, the whole isn’t quite as strong as its individual parts.
Kubo tells the story of a young boy with a mysterious past. For reasons we don’t quite know at the beginning, Kubo has the power to animate paper and can’t go out after dark. His father is gone, his mother is a recluse, and he spends his days performing for money. Soon, circumstances send him off on a grand adventure to solve the mystery of his powers and family.
Kubo’s world is a mix of stop-motion, seamless computer animation, and still-life combined to create a tangible, gorgeous world (Full disclosure: I went to Laika to see some of this stuff in person). This is Laika’s bread and butter, and there’s no denying that the environments and characters are as impressive as can be.
The voice talent in the movie is also incredible. Once Kubo sets off on his journey he’s joined by a monkey named Monkey and a soldier turned into a beetle, named Beetle. They’re voiced, respectively, by Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey, and each brings the gravitas and personality you’d expect from those two Oscar-winning actors. Even in smaller roles, actors like Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes, and George Takei provide a really dynamic sound to their characters.
Where Kubo starts to come apart ever so slightly is its story. It feels unique and original when it begins but ends up being familiar and a bit predictable. Director Travis Knight, who also happens to run Laika, has done what many other great films do: Draw inspiration from the iconic films that came before it. And yet, watching Kubo it’s rare not to think of Seven Samurai, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, even games like The Legend of Zelda. There are lots of winks, nods, or just feelings, along with shots are just a little too on the nose. A few surprises later in the movie work from a narrative standpoint, but are obvious and therefore don’t have the impact the film wants them to.
That’s something else that feels lacking in Kubo and the Two Strings: impact. As massive an adventure as we’re seeing on screen, it rarely gives you that larger-than-life feeling. Everything always feels small, even when it’s not. Kubo is fighting a flying dragon through the woods and it disappointingly intimate. Why that is is difficult to pinpoint on only a single viewing. Maybe it’s the limits of the animation style. Maybe it’s the musical score or shot selection. Either way, walking out of Kubo, there was the undeniable feeling I’d seen something that was meant to feel grander than what it was.
Then again, I felt the same way about Paranorman and The Boxtrolls. Much like Kubo, I’ve found the three original Laika movies to be very enjoyable, but just a step or two below what others think of them or what you can tell they aspire to be. (Coraline, based on a Neil Gaiman story, remains my favorite.) That’s my way of saying, if you love those other movies, there’s a chance Kubo and the Two Strings will be your favorite one yet. It’s certainly Laika’s biggest and most beautiful film to date. But, if you’re like me and you always feel like there’s something missing, Kubo doesn’t fix that. There’s no doubt it’s enjoyable, but for all the amazing craft that goes into it, I can’t help but expect more.