While Kubo and the Two Strings is Travis Knight’s directorial debut, he’s been involved in film for years now as the CEO of Laika Entertainment and lead animator on that studio’s films The Boxtrolls (2014), ParaNorman (2012) and Coraline (2009). So it’s no surprise that with Kubo, the signature stop-motion look of Laika’s output remains. This is welcome (there’s still a novelty to stop-motion animation at a time when everything else is computer-generated), but it’s not enough to make the film work. Yes, Kubo is a visual marvel, but then what? There’s something innate that’s missing here — whether it’s a sense of fun or true whimsy — which unfortunately holds Kubo back and stops it from being a pretty good, or even great, animated film.
Even with its big-name voice talent and slick visuals, it scales the heights of forgettable. Thanks to the similarities in the looks of the two films, I couldn’t help but compare Kubo to ParaNorman (which is one of my favorite animated films in the past few years). While they have obviously different aesthetics — ParaNorman a colorful Halloween adventure, Kubo the high-minded, gentle fable — Kubo never felt fun to me. Yes, there are moments of levity, and the tone and ultimate message of the film are harmless. But I never felt moved, either emotionally or with a feeling of being truly entertained.
For what is basically a magic-filled samurai flick for kids, the movie is surprisingly dull. The plot is a straightforward fairy tale, with young Kubo (Art Parkinson), a boy with the power to bring objects like origami paper to life with his guitar, setting off on a journey to track down a magical suit of armor and defeat his nefarious grandfather (Ralph Fiennes) who stole Kubo’s eye in infancy. Joining Kubo is Monkey (Charlize Theron), who’s been tasked with protecting this wide-eyed child, and, eventually, Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a once-great samurai who’s been cursed with a failing memory and the body of an insect.
Everything is properly fantastical in their quest, with Kubo running into all manner of strange beings, from a giant, man-eating skeleton to a seafloor full of glowing eyeballs and even a pair of witches (voiced by Rooney Mara). But to what end? The film feels like a checklist of fantastic set pieces, but ones lacking a certain inspiration. This is the great flaw in Kubo‘s approach, since I always had the sense I was watching something technically proficient but with little in the way of true exuberance behind it. While ParaNorman was a little shabby, at least around the edges it had real personality. Kubo‘s perfection is the enemy of the good, as they say — a beautiful creation that’s nevertheless listless. Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril.
Now playing at Carolina Cinemark, Grail Moviehouse, Regal Biltmore Grande, UA Beaucatcher, Epic of Hendersonville.