Laika Studios, bar none the masters of stop motion 3D animation, are back in superb form with Kubo and the Two Strings. Their latest opus isn't quite on the same level as their finest, Coraline and ParaNorman, but is still a wonder to behold. Kubo is a visual delight, one of the few films this summer that must absolutely be seen in 3D. The plot loses a little steam in the third act, but the overall creativity of the film is enchanting. Kubo reminds us that not all wide release animated films have to be so vanilla in their look and approach.
Coming from Focus features, the story takes place in ancient Japan. Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a one-eyed boy who lives with his sickly mother in a mountain cave. Each day he takes his shamisen, a three-stringed instrument, to the village square. He supports his mother by singing wondrous tales of adventure and heroism. Kubo's music is imbued with magic. He has the power to control objects with song. His favorite medium, squares of brightly colored paper. The pieces fold into the characters of his tall tales. Kubo never gives away the ending, always leaving the rapt villagers wanting more.
Kubo's mother has one rule. He can never be outside at night. The evil forces that took his eye are still on the prowl. The night is their domain. Curious about his birth and strange abilities, Kubo breaks the cardinal rule. The result is an epic quest with two of the oddest companions.
Laika pushes the envelope with every film. Kubo and the Two Strings is an eye-popping marvel. As much as I loved Finding Dory, I was disappointed that the animation was so blasé. This is definitely not the case here. Kubo's journey is an ocular and aural feast. One scene in particular, on the endless sea, will blow your mind utterly. It made me want to go back to school to learn animation. I can't even fathom how may thousands of hours went into making this dream a reality. Director Travis Knight and his team can be proud of how stunning their film looks.
Kubo encounters a fair amount of tragedy. This is not a saccharine plot loaded with juvenile humor. There are a few laughs, but the story is serious. It has the feel of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. There's magic and mysticism, but the night is dark and full of terror. Laika excels at this. Just as in ParaNorman and Coraline, youngsters might get a few shivers down their spines. It reminds children that not every fantasy brims with joy.
I was solidly on the Kubo train until the third act. A few big reveals aside, the climax doesn't have the oomph I expected. Kubo does a great job of building tension, but sort of peters away in the payoff. I understand the need for an emotional resolve, but it could have been done with more heft. This is a surprising flaw, especially in a story of ancient Japan. Star Wars films, essentially Samurai in space, are classic examples of the showdown between the novice and the master. The filmmakers needed to shore up the action in the end.
Whether you're new to Laika or not, Kubo and the Two Strings is a breath of fresh air when compared to more family friendly fodder. It looks amazing. The plot isn't great, but good enough to warrant a bee line to the theater. Hilariously, I thought Kubo was a girl until he's specifically referred to as a boy. I wonder how many kids will be taking shamisen lessons after watching this.