It’s difficult not to be captivated by the artistry of stop-motion animation. Probably the most captivating in this field is Oregon-based Laika, the studio responsible for releases such as Coraline and ParaNorman. As one would expect, their most recent production contains the same stunning animation as that in films past, but its other factors can’t quite match those same levels of brilliance.
In feudal Japan, a boy with one eye named Kubo (Art Parkinson) lives in a seaside cave with his reclusive mother. To make ends meet, Kubo performs as a storyteller in the nearby village using a plentiful supply of origami paper and a magical, three-stringed guitar (yes, three strings, not two). By playing music on his guitar, he is able to bring origami figures to life, and uses these figures to tell stories of his father Hanzo, the legendary samurai who once fought with the sinister Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).
One evening, Kubo is confronted by Karasu and Washi (both voiced by Rooney Mara), the twin daughters of the Moon King, who wish to remove Kubo of his remaining eye. Kubo’s mother sacrifices herself to save her son, providing just enough time for Kubo to be magically-transported away to a safer place. There, he meets with Monkey (Charlize Theron), the spirit who came to life upon the death of Kubo’s mother, and whose task it is to protect Kubo from any evil.
Being mortal, there isn’t much Kubo can do to defeat the Moon King or his daughters, but he can at least protect himself. And so, Kubo and Monkey embark on a quest to locate the long-lost armour of Hanzo, famed for its toughness. Along the way, the duo meet a human/beetle hybrid with the unimaginative title of Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) who claims to have known Hanzo and been trained by him in the ways of the samurai.
As stated before, Kubo and the Two Strings contains stunning animation, possessing greater personality and detail than many of its contemporaries. There is a great charm to this form of animation that isn’t present in computer-generated efforts, nor even in the hand-drawn format. Perhaps this is due to the lifelike-qualities of stop-motion, or because it is rarely seen in feature-length films. Either way, when judged purely on its visuals, Kubo is extraordinary viewing.
But as this is a feature film, Kubo must also be judged on its other merits, and thankfully it has more. The exposition-heavy screenplay is conventional without feeling clichéd, effectively utilising tropes common to this genre to tell its story. It explains concepts such as death and the afterlife in a non-nihilistic manner that won’t easily upset younger viewers – a value not often seen in this kind of narrative. The only issue with the script is the unfunny humour, which barely incites a chuckle.
The voice-acting is the other positive of Kubo, and a surprise. Laika has adopted the trend set by Pixar, DreamWorks and Blue Sky of hiring A-list actors to fulfil its roles rather than professional voice actors. Some casting choices are questionable – Matthew McConaughey as Beetle is one example – but many others inhabit their roles brilliantly. Art Parkinson is convincing as Kubo, Charlize Theron outstanding as Monkey, and an almost-unrecognisable Ralph Fiennes chilling as the Moon King.
Kubo and the Two Strings looks gorgeous, so much so that its other features cannot match the standards set by the animation. Not that the rest of the film is bad, for it boasts a great cast and distinctive story, but only stop-motion buffs will fully appreciate what it offers.