Friday, August 19, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings Review

Animation right now is arguably as dominate now as it ever has been. Pixar and Disney are about as strong as they ever have been. Despite a minor bump in the road with The Good Dinosaur, Pixar scored big with Inside Out last year and scored even bigger this year with Finding Dory, as the latter has now become their highest grossing domestic release ever. Meanwhile Disney is on a huge winning streak with Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia all doing phenomenal. But Pixar and Disney aren't the only ones winning right now. Illumination has earned a place among the big boys with their Despicable Me franchise as well as this summer's The Secret Life of Pets. Blue Sky has made bank with their Ice Age franchise. Warner Animation Group is taking advantage of the huge success of The LEGO Movie. Then we have others such as Sony Pictures Animation and Dreamworks trying to keep up. So yes, it's a great time for animation. But do you know what animation company ISN'T getting the attention it deserves? Laika. In terms of quality, they've made movies that are just as good, if not better, than everyone else. But yet they don't make even close to the amount of money that the others are. It's a shame. Especially since they just made their best movie yet.

If the name Laika isn't just as recognizable to you as Pixar, Disney, or Dreamworks, then shame on you. Remember them. And treat all their movies as must-sees. However, if you don't recognize their name, I do think you'll recognize their movies that they've made. Kubo and the Two Strings is their fourth movie. Their first three are Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. If I were to rank those three, I would go ParaNorman then Coraline then The Boxtrolls. But I love all of them. The Boxtrolls is their least liked film, but I found it absolutely adorable and hilariously entertaining. It barely missed my list of favorite movies of 2014. And that's their fourth best movie. So it's really saying something for me to call Kubo and the Two Strings their best movie. This movie is absolutely phenomenal. Not only is it now my favorite animated movie of the year (ahead of Zootopia and Finding Dory -- which is also saying something), this is one of my favorite all-around movies this year. My current top three are The Witch, The Nice Guys, and Captain America: Civil War. This fits right in with those, possible as high as number two. It was one of my most anticipated movies of the year and it lived up to all the hype I gave it, which is rather refreshing, all things considered.

A huge part of my reasoning here is the animation style. I absolutely adore stop-motion animation. If you're unfamiliar with the term stop-motion animation, it's the animation style that takes an inanimate object, usually a clay figurine, and gives the illusion that it's moving on it's own by photographing it frame by frame, moving it every so slightly between each frame. Claymation is the most common form of stop-motion animation and that's exactly what Laika does. Creating just one small scene in a stop-motion film takes forever. Laika's previous film, The Boxtrolls, took 72 weeks to animate. It's around an hour and a half long and has 125,280 frames. That's absolutely insane! Just think about all the time, effort, patience, persistence, and planning that goes into all that. 125,280 frames! I'd be willing to bet that Kubo has even more. I don't know all the details for Kubo. I imagine there was some use of CG with certain scenery or background characters, but the attention to detail is incredible in this movie. It's the best use of stop-motion animation that I have ever seen. I was in awe for most of the movie as I was watching, especially during some of the intense action sequences. I feel that some people go into these movies and take all of this for granted, which makes me sad.

It is true, though, that you can't just rely on the animation style for the movie to be good. All the film-making elements have to be there as well. Story. Characters. Voice acting. Music. Pacing. All of that. It has to be there. And that's where Kubo wins big. Not only is it the best use of the stop-motion animation style that I have ever seen, this movie is a lot of fun and incredibly moving. I think if this movie was a normal, all-CGI animated movie, I would still be praising this. I'm not going to spoil the setup for this movie because the trailers do a good job of not spoiling that. It starts with a huge emotional punch right out of the gate that is better left as a mystery. But nevertheless, we eventually find ourselves on a journey with a boy named Kubo, a monkey, and a beetle warrior. Kubo is the son of a samurai and has certain magical powers that he needs to learn to control. On this specific journey, Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle are out searching for three pieces to a magical suit of armor in order to save their village from a certain evil. That may sound vague and slightly cliché, but it works. I promise. I just want to leave the specific details a surprise. This may not be laugh-out-loud funny, super action-packed, or intensely deep and emotional, but what it does to is find a great balance of all of that and thus is a very well-rounded film that has something for everyone to enjoy.

First off, this is an extremely fun adventure. I saw it as almost playing out like a video game. We had three objects to find and each of these objects was guarded by a "mini boss" of sorts, which then led to a "final boss." Each of those moments provides a fantastic action sequence as they battle each "boss." Might I remind you, this is stop-motion animation. Had all these action sequences been done in CGI, this still would've been impressive. When it comes to action-focused animated movies, I think of movies like Big Hero 6, The Incredibles, and Kung Fu Panda. The action in Kubo is just as entertaining as those movies and in my opinion more intense. The stakes are higher, the villains are scarier, and there's no guarantee that those on our team make it out. As is the case with Coraline and ParaNorman, this is not really a kid's movie. I imagine mature kids will be fine, but this will probably be too intense for younger kids. This is not a knock on the movie. Unlike Pixar and Disney, the target audience for Laika isn't necessarily young kids. I don't necessarily want to make a Studio Ghibli comparison here, but it might be closer to that in terms of audience. Outside perhaps The Boxtrolls, these are mature films from Laika that I would say are more geared towards older fans of animation.

Then we have the themes of the movie. Kubo doesn't go full out Pixar on us with the emotion, but there are several moments where the emotion hits hard. As I said, it does so at the beginning. It gets you pretty good at the end. Then there's several moments sprinkled throughout where the movie sneaks up on you. It never tries to bash you over the head with emotion, but it does so enough to successfully tug at your heartstrings. I would love to dive into specifics. There's a couple of different themes that this movie has. I would argue that most people can relate to these themes. But I'm not going to talk about it. I'm going to let you discover it on your own. Just know that I was sold. As far as the comedic aspect of this movie, it would be a mistake to call this an outright comedy. It's not even Laika's funniest movie. But there is plenty of comedic relief in the movie, specifically with Monkey and Beetle. I liked the focus on the drama and the action, but I thought there was enough comedy to make it a well balanced movie. And the voice cast consisting of Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Art Parkinson, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes, and George Takei was very good. Everyone did a good job of disappearing into their roles, which helped keep the focus on the characters.

So yes, Kubo and the Two Strings is a movie that I would highly recommend. Stop-motion animation is a genre of animation that I have all the respect in the world for. It takes so long to put one of these movies together and to see a final result as flawless as Kubo puts me in awe. When you have hair like Kubo does or fur like Monkey does and it flows just as naturally as hair would in real life, it just blows me away. Then I look at the whole universe that is created and all the attention to detail with everything and I'm even more impressed. This is truly the best stop-motion work that has been done in my opinion. Then on top of that we have a movie with a great story, great characters, fun action, powerful emotion, and good comedic relief and as a fan of the genre and a fan of film in general, I am perfectly satisfied. No movie is without sin. That's the nature of film, especially when you get to personal preference. But with me, any problems I had with the movie were more nit-picks than anything, so I'm not even going to bother bringing them up. I loved this movie. I hope you go out and support Laika by seeing this movie in theaters. They deserve your money and your time. This is my favorite animated movie of the year right now and one of my favorite movies overall this year. I'm going to give Kubo and the Two Strings a 9.5/10.

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