9 out of 10
Laika, the animation studio behind “Kubo and the Two Strings” and its predecessors Coraline and Paranorman, is one of the few places still doing stop-motion animation, which is unfortunate, because it’s one of the major reasons Laika’s films work so well. The greatest strength of the studio is its ability to funnel their creativity into building engaging worlds. Whether it be the memorably morbid Paranorman or Caroline, or in this particular case the high fantasy of “Kubo and the Two Strings,” they’ve consistently created new and fascinating worlds with each of their films. Now everything in the film contributes to that, it has to, but their stop-motion style is a big part of why it works so well. Another stop motion film “Wallace and Gromit” portrays generally mundane things, but still visually engages its audience. Laika isn’t portraying mundane things. In fact the exaggerated fantastical character that it places in wild imaginative places are about as far from mundane as you can get. Of all their films, “Kubo and the Two Strings” takes advantage of that to the greatest extent.
There’s a sense of scale to Kubo that hasn’t been in Laika’s other work. You can see it in the environments, you can see it in the storytelling, you can even see it in the mythos the film creates. It pervades every piece of the film, and is really the defining difference between it and their earlier work. It’s also why this is, in my opinion, their most visually arresting film yet. The breadth of environments and characters they’re allowed to create really gives them an incredible range to work with, on a scale they’ve never had. It makes the film visually arresting, and it reinforces everything that the film is doing whether it be world building or even character development.
One of the other things “Kubo and the Two Strings” does incredibly well is its casting. Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey both fill out their supporting roles incredibly well largely because they’re allowed to just play versions of themselves. If you’ve seen them act before then the roles they play will be familiar, but those roles really work within the context of the film. It’s simply good casting. The same goes for the titular Kubo. It’s very easy for children protagonists to be unlikable, especially when they play surrogate to the audience. But Kubo balances childhood vulnerability and lightheartedness with the necessary traits for him to function as protagonist in what is essentially a hero’s journey. It makes him a believable, relatable character that, along with his strong supporting cast, really gets us invested in the film.
My only real major issue with the film is that there are two points in it where the location was abruptly changed and each time it caused an awkward break in the film’s pacing. They weren’t a huge problem, and the pacing of the film overall was fine, but they were both such specifically bad transitions that they merit mention.
All in all though, “Kubo and the Two Strings” is just a great new step for Laika and an even better opportunity to take the family out to see a film. It looks great, has a strong cast and does some of the best world building I’ve seen all year.