Well, this one certainly seemed right up my street: a model-animated adventure clearly inspired by Japanese mythology, as well as Japanese samurai and horror cinema.
Created by Laika Entertainment (Coraline, The Boxtrolls) — owned by Nike chairman Phil Knight — and directed by the company CEO (and Phil’s son) Travis Knight, it tells of a … hold on, let me take a big breath … one-eyed musician son (voiced by Art Parkinson) of the daughter of the moon king (Ralph Fiennes) and a noble samurai, who must find magical armor to protect him from the wrath of his cruel grand-dad and his two sadistic aunts (Rooney Mara), with his only help being a monkey (Charlize Theron) born of a toy charm and an amnesiac melding of a samurai and a beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Gasp, choke, wheeze.
There, that’s a workable plot, isn’t it?
No, it isn’t, and the film’s major flaw is that the magic of its look and ambitions is constantly at odds with the story’s inconsistencies and pacing. Some of the strongest ingredients seemed inspired/borrowed/lifted from the Japanese anime Read or Die, the long tradition of musical instrument weapons in such Hong Kong hits as Deadful Melody and Kung Fu Hustle, and, of course, Star Wars.
If this sounds like I wish they hadn’t done so much copying, far be it. In fact, I only wish they had done more. There was a time in Japanese cinema where it seemed they couldn’t make a bad movie, no matter what the outlandish subject matter or genre. As I watched Kubo slowly unfold over its hundred and two minutes, I wished they had cribbed a whole mess of mise-en-scene from the tighter, sharper, likes of Zatoichi, Lone Wolf, Ninja Scroll, and Spirited Away.
Don’t get me wrong. The movie is an absolute marvel to look at. To think about? Not so much, as the hundred and two minutes is sustained by repetitive behavior and contrivance. Which brings us to another aspect that’s right up my street: the fights.
There’s enough of them that the action choreographer, Aaron Toney, gets a distinct credit. Toney, a veteran stunt double, stunt man, and fight coordinator, supplies what seems to be required nowadays – flashy (albeit empty) movement that producers can term “cool.” Sadly, however, most of the truly promising stuff is left unrealized.
One would think that clashes between demi-gods, a monkey princess, a four-armed armored beetle, and a boy who can create anything from origami would be awesome, amazing, clever, delightful, and triumphant, wouldn’t one? One would be wrong. As almost always, the fights serve, as does too much of this movie, to fill time, while adding little to the characters and story.
Thankfully the film culminates in an effective climax that gives weight to the movie’s title, although it, too, leaves some strings unnecessarily hanging. Perhaps the greatest moment of the viewing, for me, was during the end credits, when they showed a time-lapse film of the Laika crew animating a monstrous sequence, finally allowing a true sense of wonder at their labor intensity.
But the entire production leaves the distinct impression that everyone would have been far better served with one more expert edit of the script – perhaps by Zatoichi, who knows something about blindness and how to properly wield an emotional sword. Kubo and the Two Strings is worth seeing, but I was left with a feeling that I admired it far more than I enjoyed it.