The opening scene in Kubo and the Two Strings – in which a woman faces off against a mounting wall of water in the roaring ocean – promises a beautiful film to come. And Travis Knight's movie mostly delivers, with stop-motion animation delivering riveting shots of origami papers coming to life in the form of warriors and birds, and haunting imagery of witch-like sisters drifting across still waters.
The stunning imagery will come as no surprise to those familiar with the American stop-motion animation studio Laika, whose past films include Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, all of which earned Oscar nominations for best animated feature. But despite its breathtaking visuals and the public's yearning for one groundbreaking film this summer after the long, warm months of mediocrity, Kubo and the Two Strings might not be the cinematic saviour of the season. Its flaws are just too hard to ignore.
The film places great emphasis on the theme of storytelling, with its protagonist Kubo telling tales through the origami paper he manipulates with magic, and others filling in his family's history for him. Yet this overplayed motif begins to bog down the actual story. And despite this continuous theme, Knight and his screenwriters seem to forget about developing their own story. The characters feel underdeveloped, to the point where it's sometimes difficult to remain invested in their triumphs and failures.
The film does have audiences suspending their disbelief for the majority of its running time, as they join Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) on a quest to find three items – a sword, armour and a helmet – in order to defeat his grandfather and two aunts, who have hunted him over the course of his life. Kubo's accomplices, a monkey (Charlize Theron) and samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey), are also weaved into the plot. But there are moments where you come crashing back to reality – likely due to the fact that the movie attempts to accomplish so much in so little time. Or perhaps because some of the plot twists are just a bit too out there, such as the final showdown between Kubo and a giant glowworm.
First-time director Knight – who served as lead animator on Laika's previous three films – does manage to artfully weave Japanese folklore elements into the plot, but having three white voice actors in the leads (Parkinson, Theron and McConaughey) might be viewed as diminishing this success. (That said, Asian actors, including George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, voice supporting characters.)
Still, the film does successfully balance humour, tragedy and horror. The comical, dopey beetle and the blunt, no-nonsense monkey make for a humorous and lovable pair. To contrast this, the film incorporates horror elements in scenes portraying Kubo's grandfather, the Moon King (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) and his mother's two witch-like sisters. They're just creepy and foreboding enough to instill fear, but not so over the top that children can't enjoy the film.
And the overall stunning nature of the work cannot be ignored. Audiences would do well to take Kubo's advice from the movie's beginning, "If you must blink, do it now," as there is no telling what they might miss if they look away.