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: 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.
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!