Reviews: Kubo And The Two Strings

A Story Out of Tune

As impressed as I was by Kubo and the Two Strings, I could not help feeling a bit disjointed by the end of the movie. It was a beautifully animated epic adventure, yet I did not feel stirred by it the way I was by other such stories. What was the missing note?

After thinking about it for a while, I realized that while Kubo was a good story, it was not a great story — and what it was missing was a cohesive theme. Kubo says a lot about stories and memories and family, but it fails to tie them together into a narrative whole. There are numerous opportunities to tie them together that get ignored, and at the end of the movie, the viewer is left disappointed that these individual instruments did not come together. Worse, one gets the feeling that this could have been accomplished had more time been spent in polishing the script, making the lost opportunities more disappointing. The pieces are there — Kubo's Paper Master powers, the stories from the villagers, the ancestor's toro nagashi lanterns, the characters' various memory issues — but while they play in parallel, they remain forever apart, like the strings of the shamisen.

Then again, it is as Kubo himself says: this was a happy story. But... it could still be a whole lot happier.

Kubo and the One Pace

Kubo and the two strings is an interesting specimen among movies. It had a lot of promise and a lot of potential, but unfortunately it falls a little flat on delivery.

The story is a good one, but unfortunately it seems to only have one speed. The film moves at the exact same neutral pace for the entire running time, and that's its greatest weakness. The scenes that should go slower are rushed through; the filler lasts longer than it should; and the action, while fantastically choreographed, feels stilted because it's all at this one pace. It makes it hard to get into the story and feel a connection to the characters.

That said, the story is good, though a little bit predictable, and the characters are memorable and fun to know. It's nothing groundbreaking, but it is pleasant to sit through.

The best thing about this movie, though, is how it looks. I dont know what method they used to make this movie, but in any case they did a phenomenal job. If it was done with stop-motion, then the animation is amazingly subtle. If it was cgi, then the detail in this film is fantastic. If it's a blend of the two, then I gotta say that the blending is flawless and impossible to tell the difference.

Kubo is a good looking film with a good story, good action and good characters. The pacing of the film completely undermines this and dulls down the experience., making it a decent film that could have had a stronger impact.

7/10

Sorry Film Makers, but No.

Today my commute to the cinema was blocked by a film crew, who had cordoned off the streets to shoot the next Transformers movie. I got to see a whole bunch of tremendously expensive looking flashy cars, and some even more expensive camera equipment. Seeing all that puts into perspective just how much money and effort really goes into making even the bad movies. I'm mentioning this because Kubo and the Two Strings must have took a mammoth effort to make, and as guilty as I feel to say it, it is in many respects a bad movie.

Not the visuals though. Kubo is a resplendent thing. The movie is most proud of a giant fluorescent skeleton monster that comes up halfway through, but for me it was the movie's opening scene that was the most impressive, in which a tiny boat fends off a towering tsunami. The problem with Kubo is the attached story, which attempts to string these glorious visuals together.

Kubo is essentially a prophesy movie, in which a boy called Kubo must collect the appropriate plot coupons to defeat some looming big bad who appears far too late into the story. This tried formula is beefed out by padding scenes and clumsy dialogue, which only serves to clutter the movie. The actual story details themselves are weirdly confusing and messy, for instance, Kubo's mother is introduced as suffering memory loss as a consequence of taking a nasty knock to the head, and then we meet a second character who also has memory loss for a totally different reason, and then yet another character comes in by the end who promptly suffers memory loss too, also due to unrelated reasons. It seems like whenever the story is about to stumble into a plot hole, the writers cover it up by magically forcing characters to forget key information, even though it requires ever more exposition to justify it.

Then there is the lamentable casting. It was always regrettable that asian actors only voice the background characters, but I was at least expecting the big name western actors to do a good job in their place. It is most glaring with Charlize Theron, here voicing a (both figuratively and literally) wooden monkey. She is put opposite a Samurai Beetle voiced by Matthew Mc Conaughey. The movie often depends on these two to bounce off one another and provide comic relief, but they have absolutely no chemistry together. In the cinema I sat in, joke after joke was met with awkward silence from the audience.

I really want to recommend Kubo for its visuals alone, but I was bored by the movie so much that I can barely even do that. For a movie that really wants to remind us about the importance of telling stories and forming memories, its a shame that Kubo ends up being a really forgettable story. In the ending credits, we are shown the tremendous work going into animating this movie, so at least I'm going to remember feeling guilty for not liking it. Sorry movie.

A beautiful masterpiece

Where do I start with this movie? It's fantastic! The stop motion is flawless; the characters move in such a lifelike manner, there were points where I almost forgot it wasn't CGI. The expressions and movements show that Laika has clearly upped their game in the past few years when it comes to their animation.

The voice work is top notch as well. Art Parkinson gives a great performance as Kubo; Charlize Theron is perfect as Monkey, and while some might be put off by Matthew McConaughey as Beetle, I thought he was hilarious in this role. And Rooney Mara as the Moon Sisters was delightfully creepy and terrifying (seriously, I haven't been this scared of stop motion since Coraline).

The ending still brings me to tears as to how heartfelt and tragic it is. The whole double twist with Monkey being Kubo's mom and Beetle being his dad was pretty easy to predict for some people, but I was so wrapped up in the story that I honestly didn't see it coming. The idea of the armor being pointless, and instead Kubo defeats the Moon King with his shamisen is a much better way to defeat the villain in my opinion.

All in all, this movie was amazing. A definite 10/10 in my book. I highly recommend it to anyone.

If You Must Blink...

...do it before the movie starts, because you don't want to miss a single millisecond.

Where do I start with this treasure? The (voice) acting is amazing. The music is enchanting. The characters are alive. The story is simple but enthralling. The setting is fascinating. The art and animation are breathtaking.

Let's start with the characters. The animation, designs, and voices blend together to make almost real living people despite the art style being decidedly non-realistic. Art Parkinson is a brilliant gem as our main hero: the inflections in his voice, the way he says his lines, the emotion he puts into everything he does. He is a believable child character in a genre where they're often pretentious or irritating - Kubo could have been my little brother.

This is not to ignore the other members of the cast by any means. Charlize Theron puts in a great performance as both the hard-nosed Monkey and Kubo's gentle, loving motherspoiler . The scenes near the beginning in the cave, where Kubo and his mother try and tell stories despite the mother's memory issues, shows a tender, touching relationship between a terrified mother and a boy who's had to grow up too fast. And that's where the main (though by no means only) strength of this movie lies: the relationships. The trio at the center, Kubo, Monkey and Beetle, form a great adventuring group to tag along with.

And what about the villains? The Sisters...holy shit. They're flawlessly sinister and eerie and threatening. That haunting Ku-bo... that they keep doing will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Their designs, especially, the masks, are deliciously creepy and their movements make them seem like stalking black shadows that always stay just out of your field of vision.

Now let's talk about the music and art, because they too carry this movie to a gold medal. The origami-esque animation (it was all stop motion) gives the movie a unique and breathtaking look, from the sinister Sisters and terrifying Gashadokuro to the tiny paper figures Kubo makes to help them on their quest. And as to be expected from the title, the music, both the soundtrack and what Kubo plays in the movie itself, do a great job of setting the mood, be it joyful, adventurous, or terrifying.

And finally, the setting. The characters, writing, story, art and music all come together to create a fascinating, living setting in a mythical Japan. The setting feels alive and real.

For downsides: Matthew Mc Conaughey's performance as Beetle, while still good by any measure, is overshadowed by the phenomenal Theron and Parkinson. Along the same lines, Raiden the Moon King, for all the hype leading up to him, is far upstaged as a villain by the Sisters, who are more immediate, more sinister, and more threatening.

A Story about Stories

This film is not the most complex offering out there; it is simple, you can follow the plot points as if you were playing connect-the-dots, and it finishes on a happy ending. That is the least of it.

The true power of the story is in this simple nature. We may see what's coming, but that doesn't mean we won't be moved or delighted or frightened when it arrives. We the audience have seen a great many stories in our lives, and still we take pleasure in one more.

And that is what the film is all about: stories. From the very first moment, from the very first words, we are being told a story. "Do not blink, even for a second." These are the words that Kubo always begins his tales with - and it is he who is telling us his story.

Like he has done so often within the narrative itself, he draws us in with the power of his emotion and heart. The fact that the world is stop-motion is reflected in his origami magic - the tales within the story and without are being acted out by inanimate figures brought to life with magic. It is the great power of the Storyteller to create a tangible illusion from merely the tools of their trade.

This film is a love-letter to the art of filmmaking and to everyone who has ever told a story. From the youngest child recounting their day to the literary giants who have shaped history with their words, this film is about THEM. About each and every one of us, about our stories and how they shape the world. There is a powerful reason that the animated credits transition to the scrolling text by showing how the Gashadokuro was brought to life.

If all you see is the story - the movements and actions contained therein - then look deeper. Look to the message hidden within the telling, and you will find a great power that may yet inspire you. And whatever you do, if you must blink, do it now. Do not fidget, for if you do, the message conveyed shall be lost.

And that really is the least of it.

A very clever film

Kubo and the Two Strings is not the sort of story that everyone will enjoy. If you are looking for a new story, or one that tells an old story in a new way, this is not the place to look.

This is the story that embraces tropes and the literary narrative whole heartedly. It tells you the exact same story that you have heard a thousand times before.

It encourages you to embrace this fact, rather than shy away from it. It does not pretend to be a story that it isn't, but embraces what it is instead.

At the outset of the film, we as viewers are invited to become storytellers and active participants exploring the movie. There is a very good reason that the movie opens with "If you must blink, then do it now", and why it is then repeated.

When one looks at the film, and analyzes it, rather than watching and seeing what is, then a deeper story unfolds and shows itself. (The use of origami to suggest this is very clever.)

Through the lens of this deeper story, certain plot points that seem to come out of nowhere will make perfect sense or be expected.

The ending is an excellent example of this. For the casual viewer, the movie has been building up the collection of the armour, and at the end, Kubo throws it away for a shamisen. This will seem to be an outright rejection of the goal of the film for something that seems to come from left field.

In contrast, a viewer familiar with tropes or with stories will see that the story has always been about love and family, about the journey taken and what it symbolizes afterwards. Through this lens, the armour becomes a symbol of revenge and hatred, all things that Kubo must cast aside. The shamisen, with its three strings attained over the course of the journey, that connection to his family, are more precious than any revenge.

In the end, Kubo and the Two Strings is not a film for everyone. Some, who only view the surface, may be disappointed by what they see.

Never forget: If you must blink, then do it now.
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