Genre: Animation, Adventure, Family
Directed by: Travis Knight
Starring: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes
From the outset we are told “if you must blink, do it now” as the film opens to a phenomenal seascape that brings to mind a Katsushika Hokusai painting brought to life in painstaking stopmotion, and from here on out your eyes will do their best to eat up the visual treat Laika lay out in front of you.
The one eyed titular hero (voiced by Art Parkinson) spends his days as an entertainer, using his shamisen to manipulate his majestic origami and his nights taking care of his sick mother. But when he breaks the rule of staying out after sunset, his evil aunties find him and attempt to take his eye so he can join his grandfather, the Moon King. Kubo’s only chance of survival is to go on a quest with monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) to find his father’s armour and defeat his supernatural grandfather.
Laika have quietly been crafting some of the most visually ripe animated films of the last few years and it’s business as usual with their latest. The studio has created some stunningly impressive set pieces with a much bolder vision than their previous efforts. First time director and Laika CEO, Travis Knight, gives the animation a sense of visual poetry, with the stop-motion feeling robustly created while being delicately crafted. It’s rare to see an American film take on such heavy influence from Asia, yet Kubo blends elements of both cultures to create a visual slice of cinema that’s supremely imaginative with bizarre creatures that have more than a hint of Harryhausen about them.While the scale might be bigger, the story is still as intimate as ever, playing out as a touching examination of loss. Also, the film deals with Kubo’s visual impairment in a sweet but subtle manner; it never defines or holds back the character. Yet, it’s the story that sadly let’s Kubo down. The film’s reveals are easily foreseeable, the exposition feels sloppy and at times it plays out like a game with repetitive boss levels. The storyline is never injected with the same level of imagination as the visuals. Kubo’s story is a simple one, no doubt in benefit of its youthful audience, but in places it feels too simplistic. It’s painfully ironic that a film centred on a brilliant storyteller fails to tell a brilliant story.
Yet the film manages to conjure up enough visual delights to make the story issues bearable. The darker elements – Kubo’s masked aunties (both voiced by Kate Mara) are spine chillingly spooky – wouldn’t feel out of a place in a horror film. While the comedic elements are bittersweet, thanks to McConaughey’s brilliant Beetle, a former apprentice of Kubo’s father who was cursed to look like a human/beetle hybrid in Kafkaesque form. These two tones manage to sit together surprisingly well, complimenting each other with great effect.
Kubo never feels like a disappointment but Laika would’ve crafted a solid animation had they spent a little more time on the story. As it stands, it’s vastly superior compared with recent year’s animation offerings, but it’s never as well paced or engaging as ParaNorman or as infectiously fun as The Boxtrolls. The visuals will have you in awe for the film’s one hundred and two minute running time but the story will fail to stay with you long enough to have a lasting effect.