The last thing a fan of stop-motion animation house LAIKA should wish for is the stifling of the company’s growing and expanding creative spirit. But their latest pic, a Japan-set fantasy adventure called Kubo and the Two Strings, unwittingly represents the downside of ambition. By attempting to push stop-motion further into the commercial mainstream, director (and LAIKA president) Travis Knight turns often to digital trickery for help with punching up the imagery.
This results in the animation looking so refined, so basically “perfect” that it seems robbed of the texture and warmth that stop-motion generally provides. The jittery movements have been almost entirely smoothed out, making the visuals hew closer in their final execution to the slickness of CGI than the finesse of fine-tuned frame-by-frame model work.
It seems almost unfair to criticize LAIKA for attempting to perfect their art, but the beauty of stop-motion has always been its imperfections by way of the artist’s hand. Instead of computer assistance making the impossible possible, stop-motion benefits from the magic of human patience and control, resulting in a visual fingerprint that reminds us beautifully of the artist’s place in the creation of each singular image.
Kubo still has some lovely moments where the characters are touched by that commanding hands-on artistry, but too often the environments and creatures lack that sumptuous tangibility that separates a LAIKA feature so stunningly and effortfully from the fully computer animated features that regularly spill forth from nearly every other major animation studio. LAIKA’s uniqueness is its imagery above all else and its commitment to scary storytelling second.
So Kubo departs from that genre lair as well. It had to happen at some point and LAIKA has never stated that they’re only committed to fright fare, but one would hope that branching out to another genre would lead to inspiration, not suffocation. LAIKA’s movies are always metaphors for children’s fears and Kubo is no different, but by emphasizing the fantasy and toning down the horror, the movie loses the sense of mysterious danger that makes their previous cinematic efforts feel uniquely attentive to youthful concerns.
Instead, they rely on the power of imagination to connect with audiences this time around, but the fantastical elements on display here are mostly bland and unexciting. The movie deals with magic and uses that aspect of the narrative to enact conflict resolutions that always feel overly convenient. The story follows the title character on a quest to retrieve his deceased warrior father’s enchanted weaponry in order to defeat his evil aunts and discover the truth behind his family’s violent past. Along the way, Kubo (Art Parkinson) teams up with a stern baboon (Charlize Theron) and a humanoid beetle samurai (Matthew McConaughey).
Admittedly, that sounds amazing and crazy and overflowing with potential. It’s strange to write that synopsis and read it back and consider how wonderfully weird this movie should be, but somehow isn’t. LAIKA movies have always been light on story and thin of plot, except they make up for it with thematic depth, focused character development, and smart treatments of the core ideas that make the perspective feel new even when the main narrative material seems overly familiar.
On the surface, Kubo appears to possess the necessary pieces to achieve similar success as its predecessors, but it’s a surprisingly shallow look at personal sacrifice and the strength of a family’s bond. The movie is also broadly about storytelling, which becomes problematic when Kubo’s voiceover adopts an ominous air, suggesting that the story we’re watching unfold is far more complex than it actually proves to be. This is a more direct command to the audience than LAIKA usually goes for and it feels out of place. Kubo’s tale is simple like other LAIKA stories, but insists otherwise, unlike other LAIKA movies.
There’s also the perplexing decision to set the movie in ancient Japan with Japanese characters voiced almost entirely by white actors. Considering Japan’s own extensive and exalted history with the animation medium, why LAIKA would choose to elbow their way into another culture just for visual kicks is a bit of a head-scratcher. It seems like Knight and screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler really wanted to use samurais and origami in their movie, which doesn’t really justify the decision. An attempt to quell any potential controversy before it begins boils down to George Takei uttering his signature catchphrase as a throwaway gag.
Despite the flaws and missteps and errors in judgement, Kubo and the Two Strings is still a fine reminder that LAIKA has carved out its own special corner of the animation world. The movie has some pretty imagery and a few good chuckles and enough imagination to avoid being completely stale. While the casting is somewhat problematic, Theron and McConaughey certainly imbue their characters with memorable personalities. So there are positives to be found and highlighted. It’s just that LAIKA has been far more intriguing and interesting in the past, both narratively and visually.
Perhaps this is the logical progression of a studio fighting hard to keep stop-motion animation alive. But as a fan, it's saddening to see the magic of painstaking (and increasingly rare) model work clobbered by overly obvious digital fakery in the name of a more palatable viewing experience. Kubo has LAIKA asserting themselves as stop-motion masters, but also as artists pushing too hard to break new ground and creating something less wondrous than their earlier work. Their technical ambition is admirable and understandable, but when matched with a middling tale that falls dramatically flat, this push forward for the company seems to have left a piece of its brilliance behind. LAIKA is still a dream factory in my books, but their latest feels a bit like waking up.