Of the more modern animation studios out there, I’ve considered Laika one of the strangest. Unlike kids films made by Pixar, Dreamworks, Blue Sky and any number of other companies, Laika’s films often seem to fall into the cult classic status. That’s no more apparent than with their latest film, “Kubo and the Two Strings.” It didn’t perform well at the box office, but it’s gotten a lot of praise from audiences and critics alike. So, what did I think of it? Let’s dive in.
The plot involves a one-eyed boy named Kubo, who lives with his mother outside of a small Japanese village. Kubo is constantly warned by his mother not to stay out late, but he ends up staying out for a spiritual festival and is attacked by his mother’s cruel, witch-like sisters. Kubo is whisked away to safety soon after and put into the care of a monkey named…Monkey, and the two go on a quest to find a magical set of armor that will protect Kubo from both his aunts and wicked grandfather, who wants Kubo’s remaining eye. Along the way, the pair meet up with a man-turned-beetle known only as Beetle who joins them. Will this ragtag group be able to find the armor and keep Kubo out of harm’s way, or will his story end before they have the chance?
If you couldn’t tell, the plot sounds weird and almost nonsensical. Trust me, it makes way more sense once you’re thrown into the movie’s mystical setting. I do think that it’s a big change from Laika’s previous films, where you were eased in pretty quickly with more modern settings. Magic plays a huge part here, and while it’s jarring at first, I found this world interesting once I got the hang of it. The magic ties into Kubo’s companions with Monkey being a reanimated charm and Beetle being cursed, but my favorite aspect was Kubo’s use of magic to animate and utilize origami. It sounds bizarre, and it definitely is, but it ends up fitting incredibly well in this fantasy world. The plot in a nutshell is more of a standard “group on a quest” thing, and there are some cliches that pop up because of that, but it’s also a bit of an emotional experience. There’s an emphasis on memories, and the theme of stories, while sometimes heavy-handed, does give some good lessons for kids (though this movie might be intense for some).
The main characters were fine and had their charms. Kubo is a kid who often has had to act like an adult, in that his mother often loses her memory (they show how this occurs in the opening scene) and he sometimes has to take care of her. But even though he’s put into a hero role by the end, the movie does allow him to act like a regular kid at times, especially around his companions. Speaking of, while Beetle sometimes annoyed me with his attempts at jokes, I did appreciate that he brought some levity to the movie overall. And Monkey had this dry wit about her that got a few chuckles out of me. Both of these characters get some more emotional moments later on, but I won’t go into them due to spoilers. If there’s any character I have to complain about, it’s the aunts and grandfather. The grandfather fares slightly better as he’s the big confrontation, though I still can’t decide if I like how he was “taken care of” by the end. The aunts are creepy, with their witch-like appearances and constant floating, but my gripe with them is how their dialogue came off. Most of it ended up feeling like exposition and I was waiting impatiently for them to be taken down.
Besides those characters, a couple other nitpick-y gripes I had were with the visuals and humor. Now, don’t get me wrong, this movie is very pretty and arguably has the best animation of any Laika film to date. But this one comes down to character models, and like with the other Laika films, there were some I wasn’t fond of. Thankfully, the ones that mattered aka the main characters were fine by me, and the fantastical setting allowed for some pretty cool monsters as well. The humor, also like other Laika films, was hit and miss for me. As I mentioned earlier, while I liked Monkey’s bouts of dry wit/sarcasm and a few other random lines and moments throughout the movie, I wasn’t keen on Beetle’s style of humor. It was like a mix of a pinch of modern slang, plus the occasional goofiness that comes from having a more comedic sidekick, PLUS at least one instance of “explaining the joke.” Thankfully, his character came around for me more when he was acting less like comedy fodder, but it’s possible that Matthew McConaughey in general just didn’t click with me.
All that said, I liked “Kubo and the Two Strings.” While I think I still prefer “ParaNorman” more, I’d easily put this movie over “Coraline” and definitely “The Boxtrolls.” I mentioned the boost in animation earlier, but I also want to make note of this movie being possibly the darkest film Laika’s made yet. While the other movies have often been praised for not shying away from more adult subjects, this one has a heavy emphasis on death and has a few intense scenes. It might not be very suitable for younger kids, which may have played a part in its box office performance. For me, this movie’s fantasy and magical elements are what drew me in the most, and the journey and characters are what kept me watching until the end. If you’ve enjoyed any one of Laika’s previous films, you might just enjoy “Kubo and the Two Strings.”