After finally seen it, I have to admit how much I regret passing up “Kubo and the Two Strings” the minute it arrived to theaters. Laika Studios deserves better attention for how impressive their stop-motion animated features are. Even more unique is how they are made for the budget of a simple $60 million. A movie like this almost appears more than that. And yet, much was well spent with great characters, a powerful story and an overall movie-going experience that swept me away. In a sense, I’m tempted to put this on my list of all-time favorite movies. But perhaps, it will in due time once its greatness is more recognized (I’m looking at you Oscars.) I would go as far to say its a great anime (seeing its set in ancient Japan) considering the style and tone does feel like one.
The character of Kubo is highly identifiable. Not because he is a kid, but how imaginative and caring he can be. It’s about as realistic as a typical kid with innocence can get. In the first part of the movie, we get an idea of his surroundings and his limits. How protective he is others and how creative he can be. Gifted with a magic shamisen, Kubo uses this to bring origami to life and tell stories to the local village. A clever way to set up the remainder of the story as Kubo can draft heroic characters and monsters, but sadly stuck on an ending.
His life changes when two witches are after him and has to find three pieces of armor to save him and those around him. Accompanying his journey is a no-nonsense Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a cursed samurai warrior trapped as a humanoid beetle (Matthew McConaughey). And let me tell you, I loved these characters and greatly cared for them. I loved how the Monkey was motherly at times, but knew when to be a fighter and protector. I adored Beetle and how he could provide comic relief for his bad memory as well as his heroic attempts. When one of them was in danger (especially little Kubo), there was a sense of danger and risk that we might loose these heroes. And that’s what I found more intriguing compared to the other summer films this year; there was a sense of care for our characters.
Again, I feel tormented I didn’t see this one sooner to really appreciate its beauty. Watching this was like “Wolf Children,” a movie about growing up and learning its difficulties along the way. To know when to let go and find your place in the universe. That to me is really what this movie was in a nutshell, but more. The lesson at the end is to make your own story and live it. Telling legends are good, but don’t forget to live your tale to the fullest. And even when it ends, those who heard it will remember your story and how important it can be. Few movies this year are able to convey such a heavy message in a unique way.
Thus at the end, I found myself in tears. Tears at the beauty of the animation and the way it concludes. Sometimes, you don’t need a big epic fight to bookend your movie. And that’s something missing from most good vs. evil tales. Without spoiling HOW it ends, violence can defend, but it can’t serve a happy ending in this kind of world. And they way this “alternative” was offered was so powerful and emotional that I had a hard time holding back every tear.
The only thing I do have to nitpick is the use of CGI. To its credit, there are times when it blends perfectly into the environment and obviously animating water in a stop-motion flick is near to impossible. Sometimes the CGI effects can stick out while other times it can blend seamlessly into this colorful world. I even found myself marveling at certain sets and blades of grass wondering what was really there and what was digital. Not to mention there is a great amount of effort and creativity in things like a giant skeleton (which is a big puppet as shown during the end credits) and an array of monsters. Each one feels like they were taken from Japansese folklore in design and poetic movement.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is a movie I can’t recommend enough. It’s up there with “Coraline” as my favorite film from Laika. There is action, humor and plenty of heart. Not a single frame feels wasted and everything feels perfectly paced. The dark moments feel earned, the quiet moments are put in the right spots and when it gets theoretical about topics like death and what lies beyond, it’s executed in a way that is subtle and executable. So much that even little kids won’t have a hard time with the some of the harsher elements because they will be assured their story will live on even at the end. But it breaks my heart to see not many have given this one the love and respect it deserves at the box-office. I beg of you, see this on the big screen. Because if you blink out on this one, you will miss out on a powerful experience.
I have this theory with Laika Studios. Every new movie that comes, the animation gets a huge improvement. But for every new movie, there comes a price in its quality. Coraline is the one that started its journey with memorable characters, amazing animation and a story with many twists, turns and wonders. With the bar so high, ParaNorman only half succeeded in my opinion. Sure the animation got better but with a visual atmosphere that looked unappealing and characters that were either interesting or too mean, it thankfully picked up in the second half to at least save its hide. “The Boxtrolls,” however, takes a back seat so high in the balcony that all we have left to marvel are the visuals and wish the story wasn’t so cliche, slow and brash.
Set in the Victorian era, a small town that has a fascination for cheese and rank social class by tall and colored hats has a problem with creatures known as boxtrolls. Apparently, an urban legend spreads that these monsters come out at night to eat people and took a baby for a late night snack. But as it turns out, these mischievous creatures only scavenge for loose parts for a city they build underground and that’s it. Instead of giving these cute monsters a distinctive personality they feel more like Minion and Gremlins clones voiced by Frank Welker.
But they are not alone as a small boy named Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright) lives with the boxtrolls to the point he is one. In a Tarzan, Lord of the Apes manner, he guards them like a band of brothers or tries to when a batch of exterminators plan to rid the town of these cutesy creatures to the pleasure of the town. I’d want to say there’s something interesting about the Eggs character but there unfortunately wasn’t. He just bored me throughout. A typical fish out of water that is raised by a different set of creatures. We never get to understand his role with these beings that much or even get an idea of his understanding between the world above with the humans and his world with the boxtrolls. There’s no support to show what he wants in this story. He only exists as a plot element for a predicable twist later on.
The only thing that is sort of entertaining in this movie is the villain, Archibald Snatcher. Ben Kingsley voices this twisted brute as he plans to capture every boxtroll in the town just to gain higher authority by means of a white tall hat and access to eating all the cheese he wants. The only thing I found at least amusing is the personality. This is the kind of villain I can laugh at for his slick and over the top movements and Ben is a good fit. But the biggest flaw is his motive. All he wants to get higher respect and even then, he has a huge allergy to cheese that makes him look so distorted and gruesome that in comparison The Elephant Man looks like a Saturday date. They also give him this dual cross dressing role but it doesn’t pay off in the end. It just leads to some one note jokes about a man in female’s clothing that I did get a chuckle out of but that’s really all it serves.
The main plot, that is if you can call it one, has Eggs trying to save his underground family from the hideous exterminator and his befundled henchmen (voiced by Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost and a surprisingly unrecognizable Tracy Morgan) who keep questioning if they are good or bad to the point we ourselves wonder what kind of movie it wants to be. Most of the time, it tries to be sweet and innocent like the underground dwellers but there isn’t much of a motive for them. They exist to be cute and act Minion-like as they babble nonsense and hit one another for slapstick. The next minute, it tries to be this dark kid’s film with its grimy sets and ugly character designs but nothing really comes together. One minute, the citizens keep talking about how boxtrolls have piles of bones and rivers of blood (even a whole song dedicated to it) while the next minute some of the adult characters feel like cut-outs from an episode of The Simpsons.
I guess the morale of “The Boxtrolls” is “be what you want to be,” but it gets lost under so much complex storytelling and predicable cliches that really drag the film down. With Coraline, it was a simple story that kept getting bigger and bigger without the need for any complex character work. ParaNorman did have some harsh beats but made up for it at the second half with its message of don’t judge a book by its cover. If there was a stronger story and better character motives while being light on the gross and macbe humor, maybe I wouldn’t feel so harsh on The Boxtrolls but so much potential was lost. Here, there’s too many underdeveloped characters and underdeveloped motives that don’t pay off and its form of comedy is so bizarre and strange that it made me scratch my head wondering what this was all building to. Why is the town obsessed with cheese? Why the higher class ranking done by hats? If this was building to a certain point at the end, I fail to see what it was building to in the first place in its weird and unpleasant sense of comedy. The only thing that barley redeems it is the animation and the mechanics behind it but in an animated tale, visuals accompany the story. And here, a weak story can’t be saved. By the time it kept going on and on even throughout the credits when they show how the animation is done in a one-note joke, I just wish it would end or at least have a stronger conclusion. This is probably the first stop-motion film I’ve seen since Corpse Bride where I asked myself just what went wrong behind all those crafted sets and mounds of tiny figures to make me feel so irked and disappointed.