It would be dishonest of me to echo the complaints about how lackluster this summer’s movie offerings have been, since I’ve enjoyed so much of what’s been released, from major productions like Paul Feig’s unfairly-reviled Ghosbusters reboot & Shane Black’s neo-noir comedy The Nice Guys to weirdo indie outliers like The Fits & The Neon Demon. Where I sour on 2016’s movie industry output, however, is in those films’ box office numbers, which are dismal at best. Seemingly, the only movies able to make significant money in our current cultural climate are either bloated superhero spectacles or CG-animated films featuring talking animals. What’s frustrating me the most this week is that Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest masterful offering from the stop-motion animation marvels Laika, satisfies both of those requirements in its own way. It features both an in-over-his-head protagonist with superhuman abilities and his talking animal sidekicks and yet, like so many other great films this year, it’s flailing in its opening weekend attempt to recoup a significant fraction of its production costs. Kubo and the Two Strings alone is proof positive of 2016’s major cinematic conundrum: great films are being made; it’s just that no one’s paying to go see them.
Inspired by Japanese folklore & the rich cinematic past of samurai epics, Kubo and the Two Strings is at heart a story about the power of storytelling & the ways memory functions like potent magic. The film’s titular protagonist is a small boy who makes a living for himself & his disabled mother by telling stories for market place shoppers’ spare change in town. Kubo illustrates his own tales by playing his banjo-esque musical instrument, the shamisen, which brings to life colorful sheets of paper that fold into origami shapes & act out his stories as he narrates. What the townspeople don’t know is that the witches, samurais, and magic moon kings of Kubo’s stories are also a real life part of his past . . . which is why his tale doesn’t yet have an ending, a frustrating quality that always leaves his audience hanging. When that past catches up to him Kubo is caught in the middle of two opposing quests: his own mission to reclaim his deceased father’s armor and his witch & moon king enemies’ quest to steal his only remaining eye (finishing a job they started when he was only a newborn) and, thus, destroying his capacity for empathy & his free will. Kubo’s only company on this journey are a goofball beetle in samurai armor (Matthew McConaughey in his best performance since Interstellar) and a no-nonsense monkey (Charlize Theron, who’s just as fierce here as she was in last summer’s Fury Road). Along the way Kubo learns the responsibility & discipline necessary to command his magic abilities, but more importantly he learns that only he can bring a happy ending to his own story, however bittersweet.
A lot of what makes Kubo and the Two Stings such an overwhelming triumph is its attention to detail in its visual & narrative craft. As with their past titles like Coraline & ParaNorman, Laika stands out here in terms of ambition with where the studio can push the limits of stop-motion animation as a medium. The film’s giant underwater eyeballs, Godzilla-sized Harryhausen skeleton, and stone-faced witches are just as terrifying as they are awe-inspiringly beautiful and I felt myself tearing up throughout the film just as often in response to its immense sense of visual craft as its dramatic implications of past trauma & familial loss. The film also allows for a darkness & danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but balances out that sadness & terror with genuinely effective humor about memory loss & untapped talent. What’s really impressive here, however, is its efficiency in storytelling. There isn’t a single image or element at play, from a woven bracelet to a paper lantern to an insectoid buffoon, that doesn’t come to full significance if you lend the film enough patience. Kubo and the Two Stings could’ve easily rested on the laurels of its visual spectacle, a result of infinite hours of painstakingly detailed labor in an animation studio, but it instead pours just as much care & specificity into its reverence for traditional storytelling. Nothing presented onscreen is wasted. This is narrative prowess at its most essential & efficient, an attention to craft reflected in the fact that the film’s protagonist himself is a storyteller & an animator in his own right and that his quest mostly centers on a desire to seize & steer his own narrative to a satisfactory ending. This film definitely falls into the category of cinema about cinema, art about art, but it doesn’t call attention to that conceit. It all takes naturally & beautifully as the plot continually folds in on itself like intricate origami.
What films do you consider the height of stop-motion animation as a medium? The Nightmare before Christmas? Fantastic Mr. Fox? Alice? Mary & Max? Kubo and the Two Strings easily belongs in the conversation at even a moment’s glance. The film boasts an impressive depth of visual detail & intricately mapped-out story structure, yet it’s remarkably light on its feet, leaving plenty of room both for moments of levity & for heart wrenching blows of emotional impact. Just watching the endless parade of bland talking CG animal kids’ comedies in the trailers preceding Kubo and the Two Strings, each more annoying & forgettable than the last, is enough of an eye opener as to why this film’s arrival in our current cinematic climate is such a goddamn relief. You owe it to yourself to watch this modern classic on the big screen and, please, bring a friend. The idea that there are no great films being released this year, that Hollywood is simply out of ideas and the world was somehow more creative or inspired in past decades is honestly getting to be more than a little silly. There are plenty of great films in the theater right now. We just need to get smarter about throwing our attention & dollars at them. I suggest starting with Kubo and the Two Strings. You could do far worse with your money than escaping the August heat in the air-conditioning, admiring a projection of a modern animation masterpiece in the comfort of public darkness.