My negative comments about the animated Batman: The Killing Joke and Justice League Dark were definitely affected by my lack of love for animation, but mostly because the animation was ugly, and the stories weak. My comments on the animated stories within A Monster Calls were positively glowing, so I guess it isn’t animation overall I don’t get into, though that’s my biggest complaint. Another complaint is that I don’t feel that animated stuff is much more than fanservice once it goes beyond the child demographic.
By that I mean that the characters, the conflicts, the plots themselves rarely position themselves as truly for a more adult audience. I’ve seen a lot of animated features, not just from Pixar, and those which my friends claim to be complex just don’t seem all that complex to me at all. Having said that, lack of the kind of complexity that engages me personally is not the sole requirement for something being enjoyable to me – case in point, recent Oscar-nominated Kubo and the Two Strings.
I remember seeing a cinematic trailer for this during a movie my wife and I saw last year and muttering, “C’mon, who is this for?” but that’s simply snobbery talking that I’ve since tried to purge, in an attempt to not dismiss movies out of hand. For me, it’s a big step to simply decide to watch something I initially sneered at! And it was a good choice too. Everyone else was right, I was wrong. Kubo is a very decent little movie.
Knowing nothing about it. I was surprised that it wasn’t an Asian movie, like Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. I recognized the Laika brand from Coraline and Paranorman (both movies I liked), so I was mostly settled into it quickly from the offset. First thing I noticed was the beauty and rich complexity of the visuals. The movie for all its running time is consistently gorgeous, with a soft, subtle colour palette that’s in marked contrast to other animated features which seem garish to me for the most part. The animation really grabbed me here, and it seemed at times to be stop motion then CGI. As it turns out, it’s a fantastic blending of both. I read a fantastic article about how the movie was brought to life – here’s the link so you can do the same. It’s a truly great looking movie, and the fact that actual physical models were used, rather than wholly digital creations, lends a feeling of solidity to the visuals, which in turns rubs off on the characters.
In terms of that complexity I mentioned earlier, Kubo isn’t particularly complex – certainly no more complex than the best of the Toy Story movies, but I’ve seen movies for adults with a lot less complexity, so again, not a deal breaker for me. The story is relatively formulaic, a melding of a Hero’s Journey and coming of age tale, neither one of them all that strong, but they shore each other up in the narrative, so it works. Populating this tale are Kubo (Art Parkinson from Game of Thrones), a magically endowed one-eyed child of a widowed, ailing, magically endowed mother (Charlize Theron), who escapes from danger to seek out his dead father’s magical armour. Heading into Act 2, the Hero’s Journey becomes apparent when he meets up with a talking monkey (also voiced by Theron), and an anthropomorphic beetle, voiced by Matthew McConaughy. A couple of key reveals further down the line are not much of a surprise, but while telegraphed in obvious fashion, they’re woven well into both narrative and character. There’s also a little origami samurai along for the trip, but his inclusion is not too integral to the plot or the story.
At no point did the movie lose me, but while I loved Theron’s soulful portrayal of the monkey protector, I was less interested in the Beetle – not because McConaughy does a bad job, just that the writing of this characters just came off to me as more of a Buzz Lightyear knockoff in the early scenes. The character changes fundamentally later, but spends the bulk of Act 2 in that blowhard, not-as-funny-as-he-thinks-he-is mode that most viewers will be familiar with, and either enjoy or not because of it.
My disaffection for the Beetle is also reflected in my opinions for the character designs. I liked Kubo, I liked monkey, loved the Twin kabuki-masked sisters of evil (both voiced by Rooney Mara), and both forms of the Big Bad, but Beetle just seemed designed too obviously for my liking. The second form of the Big Bad gets kind of reminiscent of the giant floating reptilewhale things from the end of the first Avengers movie, but there’s also a simple charm about the design that’s missing from Beetle. This character is played by Ralph Fiennes, but came off a little too laconic and safe for my liking, and the visual of the human form was like a less threatening Grand Moff Tarkin – could have been better, I thought.
The story surprises, though. While I mostly poo-pooed the relatively simple Hero’s Journey/coming of age blend, the resolution switches gears from the predictable ending that would have been delivered by Pixar or Disney, becoming instead a thought-provoking rumination of forgiveness and redemption that DOES have its place among movies for adults. I found it extremely satisfying, even though it wouldn’t have satisfied in a live action movie with higher stakes on both sides. It was a great choice, and even though Kubo’s arc is not transformative as such, allowing Kubo to be involved in seeing a transformative arc conclude was a great piece of storytelling.
This work is attributed to Laika CEO Travis Knight, and this is his first major feature, and he does a splendid job all round here. I imagine he’s been around the business long enough where he had only as much creative assistance as he needed, but it’s a terrific first movie on his part – not only him though, the entire crew behind the scenes has crafted a warm story worth telling, and worth seeing. If you’re already a fan of animated movies and haven’t already seen it. I know it’s on your list. If you’re like me and have a take-it-or-leave it attitude, throw something new up and watch Kubo and I’d be surprised to find you disappointed.