Sunday, September 4, 2016

'Kubo and the Two Strings': A Joint Review

The other day, I finally got to see Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest great from the masterminds at LAIKA. Like some of my previous reviews, I will be discussing this very film with fellow animation writer Munir (who writes for A113 Animation, definitely check them out!), so without further ado...

Oh, and... MASSIVE SPOILERS ahead...

K: LAIKA's newest animated feature is a modern animated marvel... Not only is Kubo and the Two Strings their biggest and most ambitious film, it is also another example that modern animation should look up to, to be influenced by. A family-friendly film that's atmospheric, quiet, smart, and the right mix of the various elements. Kubo and the Two Strings has a beautifully layered family story at its core, making for a twisty-turny adventure filled with action and peril. At times it's rough and intense, not worrying about what some random easily frightened 5-year-old in the audience might think. At other times it's playful, fun, and humorously eccentric.

M: Agreed. Kubo is LAIKA's best film and may be the best film of the year (tied with Zootopia). The animation is breathtaking, the characters are compelling and complex, and the score is atmospheric and wonderful. I loved it from beginning to end!

K: Unlike a lot of plot-heavy animated features made by the mainstream houses, Kubo feels delightfully traditional in some ways, as all of its details and themes are textured into the story. The focus on character and the journey makes for a very even pace that lets you breathe in the environments that you are taken to, the moods of each scene... I don't get that in a lot of mainstream feature animation today, even in a lot of the good stuff. It feels very busy and on-the-move, rushing to get to the next "plot" point or joke.

M: I like how this film let the scenes breathe, and both the characters and audience have time to soak in every moment and enjoy it. One scene that really struck me was when the Sisters first appeared. It was atmospheric, creepy, and it was not frantically paced. It let the audience and Kubo realize the whole horror of what is happening.

K: Like LAIKA's first two films, Kubo doesn't shy away from the darker and scarier. There are many great, creepy visuals in the film. The sisters, Kubo's aunts, are indeed some of the freakiest looking things in the movie, and will probably bring nightmares to lots of little kids. You get a real Shining vibe from them! It doesn't quite go as far as Coraline and ParaNorman did, but when it needs to get rough, it doesn't hold back.

M: I like how LAIKA does not sanitize the story. They tell the audience and the children in particular that life is sometimes scary and that's ok. It reminded me of Walt's earlier films like Pinocchio and Bambi. Another aspect I really liked is how well choreographed the action scenes were. The scene where Monkey fights with one of the Sisters, and Kubo is down in the ocean was masterfully done.

K: It kept me on the edge of my seat. I loved how drawn out that fight was, allowing you to really get everything out of it. Kubo encountering a swarm of giant eyeball monsters produces some of the film's most breathtaking visuals, while the fight above amps up the suspense. And yes, it too reminded me of Walt's earlier films, dosing in darkness while balancing it out with lighter and comedic moments, and not aiming to be some pocket-watch plotted story. The film had lots of comic relief, and had this sort of eccentric vibe to it that bolstered the humor and the character interactions.

M: I think some of the humor didn't land but overall was well handled, particularly the interplay between Monkey and Beetle.
K: I agree there as well, some of the jokes didn't stick the landing either... Though that's par for the course for animated movies with comic relief, but at least a lot of it did work. Some lines indeed were a bit cringeworthy, but that's perhaps the only slight blemish on what is a near-perfect, smart script.

M: It was a very smart script. It played with magic and mythology in an excellent way and I didn't see those surprising reveals coming.

K: I didn't either! You could argue that the twists were right there in front of us, too. It was handled so subtly and so well. The fantastical elements? Nailed. Each and every one. It allows the film to innovate with the medium of stop-motion, and do something unseen before: Bringing life to origami!

M: Were you bothered that Non-Asian actors voiced the main characters? It feels iffy to me but it's hard to argue when the performances were amazing!

K: A little. It would've been nice if the film was a little more representative, especially coming from a company that vocally doesn't go for the things mainstream animation tends to go for. That being said, everyone turned in a wonderful performance!

M: Exactly. Lately, Disney Animation has been doing wonders with diversity and I thought a studio that usually breaks barriers like LAIKA would do the same but it's not a deal breaker.

K: Yes, it really is surprising. So the voice actors really succeed here, and again the script keeps things relatively quiet. I love how its themes are there, but aren't spelt out for you. The film is very much about Kubo learning that revenge is not the answer, and that despite the terror going on in the world, there is a lot of humanity and light to overcome that, and that should not be negated. I think this made the villain - the Moon King - particularly strong.

M: Agreed. I love how, in the end, the whole village and Kubo chose to forgive the Moon King and completely reinvent him. It's not your usual ending where the villain is destroyed and instead, in a subtle way, the film shows that violence is not the answer and that there are other ways to deal with problems.

K: It's also gutsy in axing off both of Kubo's parents, but yet he gets a bittersweet ending where he can communicate with their spirits. I love the whole spiritual angle of the film, it adds so much depth and a lot of heart into the already resonant film.

M: I think Beetle's story was sad because he realized he was Hanzo moments before he was killed. Also, I liked how the film dealt with Kubo's mother before she turned into Monkey. You can see that she is severely wounded (physically and emotionally) and that Kubo needs to take care of her. You can see Kubo's struggle every time his mother gets lost in her mind and the way the film shows it is beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time.

K: That's another thing I liked, throughout the first act the mother is mostly off because she's ill, and that's something you normally don't see either. Nothing's played for laughs, it's just very direct. I also really liked how the first act keeps you in the dark for a bit, regarding why Kubo can't stay out late at night. So well-paced.

M: Yes and the editing is excellent. There wasn't a moment or scene that could've been cut or reduced. Every single part of the film was necessary to the story.

K: And like I said, such perfect pacing. I was able to feel every scene, but other recent animated films - good as some may be - jump, just... Zoom! Onto the next scene! I wanted to breathe in that shot!

M: Yes, they are in a hurry to go from one scene to the next that sometimes, you can't appreciate all the details or absorb all the information. What was your favorite scene from the film?

K: Oh goodness... That's hard to pick, because there are so many standout moments. The arriving of the Sisters is one, all of the origami sequences are up there, and the sequence where Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle talk about the song of the passing birds... So many good scenes.

M: They are all excellent but I think the arrival of the Sisters and when the villagers forgive the Moon King are outstanding. The arrival of the sisters is so eerie and their designs are so wonderful that the whole scene is horrific and beautiful at the same time. The ending... It's not really big on visuals or action, but the unexpected twist was so great that it really stood out for me.

K: I loved how the majority of the third act was handled, made for some really jaw-dropping and beautiful moments. The best animated films, modern or classic, have those ethereal moments that go beyond the story, the screen... as if they start operating on an entirely different level. It's not dissimilar to ParaNorman's third act, to me.

M: Agreed. The ending is not the usual happily ever after but it offers a satisfying, if bittersweet, conclusion to the film that stays with you long after it's over. It also reminded me of some of Miyazaki's films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.

K: It's inspired by the best, even if it may not intend to from some sources (again, I agree with the early Walt films comparison, I felt it too rung similar to the likes of Pinocchio and Bambi), making it a very tonally diverse film. It ends on just the right note.

M: Kubo and the Two Strings is an all-around triumph. From its detailed and breathtaking animation, to its splendidly choreographed action scenes and nuanced messages, Kubo cements LAIKA as one of the best studios nowadays. It's a shame it's not a hit like its CGI counterparts but that doesn't take away the tremendous success Travis Knight & Co. have created. It's also not afraid of pushing the boundaries of what family entertainment is and hopefully, more animated films will follow suit. Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the best films of the year and an absolute must-see. Don't miss it!
K: A film with such a respect for its audience, young and old, can be rare in mainstream entertainment in general. Kubo knows atmosphere and that in film, the experience should be immersive. Instead of wanting to race, race, race through a tangled plot, it instead walks, it strolls. The thankfully small cast of characters is great and the voice actors nail the roles, the story is very well pieced together and textured with lots of resonant themes. It's emotional, but also fun and adventurous, and isn't afraid to take some real risks both visually and story-wise. It's a modern animated masterpiece, and another crowning achievement for LAIKA!


1 comment:

  1. I agree with you, guys. It's another masterpiece. I loved this one so much. Oscar for Laika next year? What do you think? This year has been so great for Animation! Zootopia, Finding Dory, Kubo, The Little Prince (released last year in Latin America by Paramount), April and the Extraordinary World. Even Kung Fu Panda 3 and the entertainment Pets from Illumination. I can't wait for what brings Moana.