I think Laika Animation may have shot itself in the foot a tiny bit. Their first two productions, Coraline and ParaNorman were so incredibly good, that it became a nearly unclearable bar for its upcoming project. I mean, once you’ve made 2 of the top 3 American animated kids movies since the year 2000 (the third is The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and no, I don’t know what order they’re in), even really good movies become disappointments.
But that’s only a question of comparison, and it’s still more than enough to make a movie that’s engaging and enjoyable to watch on its own merits. And with this limp squeak of a summer behind it, it’s easy for any movie, much less a Laika movie, to appear pretty solid when you recognize what kind of company it stands with. So I was pretty hopeful going into this movie.
Our plot concerns Kubo (Art Parkinson), a boy who is missing one eye, living in a Japanese fishing village. He spends his days crafting elaborate fantasy stories and using a magical shamisen to act them out using origami figures, in exchange for coins. He spends his nights inside, caring for his mother, who also has powerful magic, but who has a head injury that is causing her to fade slowly away from him. She also forbids Kubo from being outside after dark.
The first time Kubo elects to disobey that rule, he discovers why it was important: A pair of powerful sorceresses, his mother’s sisters (Rooney Mara) arrive, intent on taking Kubo’s remaining eye. His mother forces him to flee, to find a suit of armor left to him by his late father that’s the only thing that can protect him. Along the way, he is joined by a living version of a monkey totem he carried with him, Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a warrior who served under his father but was cursed into the form of a giant beetle/person, Beetle (Matthew McConaughey).
As you probably might have guessed from that plot summary, the plot isn’t particularly deep or involved (it’s basically the hero’s journey, down to a tee, with several of the major steps being almost literal). But that’s not really a flaw for a kids movie, and what Kubo does right, it does so very, very right, that it makes up for a lot of flaws. I mean, the gorgeous animation alone would make up for a movie with many more flaws than this one has.
Outside of the gorgeous animation (and it is, GORGEOUS, a mid-credits scene showing how they animated one of the film’s signature action sequences caused my jaw to drop) is its characters. All of its characters are very well realized, with recognizable arcs for all of them. Having even one fully fleshed out character in a kids movie is damn near a miracle these days, and having its entire cast (save, perhaps, its villains) be as well realized as this cast is, is f**king incredible.
This works in tandem with a script that gives everyone on board fun, engaging dialogue. It’s not exactly Shakespeare (or, for that matter, ParaNorman) but it’s a good script, with solid dialogue across the board and a great sense of flow. Less good is the story, which feels more than a little cliched, and telegraphs a couple of reveals a little too hard in the early parts of the film. Maybe that will be less of an issue for the intended audience, since they’re not as used to these cliches and story points, but it is a little disappointing for adult viewers.
Of course like ParaNorman and Coraline, it’s also intended as something of an action/horror hybrid, and it’s very good at that. It’s action beats are incredibly well animated and put together, especially given the amount of work that had to go into every single one. And as for horror, well both of the two sisters are incredibly unnerving on screen (it’s the masks) and the eventually revealed final villain has a rather frightening visage as well, even if they’re nothing compared to the final form of the Other Mother (see what I mean about comparisons?)
All of this is brought together with an excellent voice cast. Charlize Theron is a great humorless hard-ass, and her slow defrosting towards the other two characters is something she brings across rather well. Matthew McConnaughey does a great variation on his usual laid back schtick (since his character is supposed to be forgetful and absent minded, it works very well) and Rooney Mara does a fantastic job selling the other-wordly creepiness of the sisters. And while it’s hard to be a child actor, even in a kids movie, Art Parkinson is fantastic as Kubo, showing that when he’s not relegated to being something akin to a pet, he can be pretty great… He played Rickon Stark, that’s a Rickon joke.
Summer is more or less over, and it was a pretty disappointing one at that, with my two favorite movies of the summer being two movies that don’t really fit the Summer mold (The Lobster and The Nice Guys, respectively). So now that we have a gorgeously animated, brilliantly realized action movie, that you can even take your kids to without fear of scaring them to death, you’d better believe it’s getting my seal of approval. So definitely go out and see it, if only so that when it hits Netflix in 8 months and everyone discovers it, you’ll be ahead of the curve.
Elessar is a 26 year old Alaskan born cinephile and his favorite Summer-type movie of the year is probably Deadpool.
– gorgeous (GORGEOUS) animation
– extremely solid script
– fantastic voice acting
– mediocre story
– ending is kind of abrupt