Laika, the Portland, Oregon animation house, returns with another stunning stop-motion beauty. But as with their previous outings Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls, their odd blend of kiddie movie and dark fantasy left me wondering just who their audience is supposed to be. I find myself lauding the studio for its commitment to quality while being increasingly annoyed by their insistence on dumbing down their dialogue and humor for the kindergarten set.
Kubo and the Two Strings – Kubo is the title character; the two strings aren't fully explained until late in the film – takes place in an ancient Japan where magic is commonplace and the Japanese people speak flawless American English, and in fact have a distinctly modern American body language. (The latter is the only sore spot in an otherwise dazzling, and authentic, depiction of the era.) Kubo, a one-eyed boy whose father, a samurai, died protecting him from his own grandfather, lives alone with his depressed mother, until he is forced into a quest to find three enchanted objects – a sword, armor, a helmet – while battling his evil aunts and grandfather. He is joined by a monkey and a beetle, which isn't as stupid as it sounds, though it doesn't fully work. (Charlize Theron, voicing the monkey, sounds bored. Matthew McConaughey, as the ebullient samurai beetle, fares better.)
Laika was founded by Nike billionaire Phil Knight, and his son Travis, president and CEO of the company, gets his first crack at directing a feature. It's easy to perceive nepotism at work – rich kid wants to play in his dad's sandbox – but Knight fils shows a great visual eye and a solid sense of pacing. I believe his talent is as real as his passion for the medium. And as usual with Laika, you have to keep reminding yourself that this is stop-motion animation you're watching, not CG. Kubo's visuals are unparalleled.
In the end, though, I must say that I felt a bit enervated while watching the film. I hate to say this, because I wanted to like Kubo so much, and I want you to like Kubo, so that Laika can stay afloat. But for me, the comic moments fizzled and the sentimentality felt out of place. Still, see it for the outstanding animation and design. Dario Marianelli's score, featuring nifty use of the shamisen (a banjo-like instrument that Kubo plays throughout the film), is also excellent.