Kubo and the Two Strings ★★★★½

Kubo and the Two Strings is a film that has had an interesting trajectory, in terms of my interest in it. I had heard about it at the start of this year and allowed myself to be cautiously optimistic about it. The last two Laika outings, 2012’s visually enticing but ultimately dull Frankenweenie and 2014’s mediocre the Boxtrolls, hadn’t impressed me. But I knew the studio was still capable of great things–they made Coraline, after all–and Kubo certainly sounded cool on a purely conceptual level. And then I kind of forgot about it as the year soldiered on. Between DC relaunching their line of comics, school, starting a podcast, and the release of a ton of other movies, that seems entirely understandable.

Suddenly, about two weeks ago, the film resurfaced in a big way. The reviews were stellar, and the response from online film communities was very positive. So, while lamenting the fact that Cafe Society was still not playing anywhere near me, I discovered that Kubo, in fact, was. I went and saw it. (I might as well enjoy my last week of relative freedom before I start my sophomore year of university.)

As it turns out, Kubo is incredible. Despite being a relatively weak year for blockbusters, there have been a number of incredible films. It’s also been a strong year for animation, but Kubo blew pretty much everything else out of the water.

The driving force of the film is it’s commentary on storytelling. At its core, Kubo is a story about the power of stories, and it’s handled with incredible finesse. Sure, this may not be an element of the movie that everyone will find intriguing–in fact, I’m sure that it’s entirely possible to see the film and completely miss it. Which is fine, but I’m a sucker for this sort of thing. It adds an additional layer of depth to the film without getting lost in its own need to be clever. If anything, Kubo is incredibly understated.

Regardless of whether or not that particular element of the film appeals to you, the storytelling in Kubo is outstanding. There are multiple swerves in the plot that manage to simultaneously seem to come out of nowhere but retrospectively make absolute sense. It’s a clinic in handling plot twists. Everything comes naturally, and the emotional highs of the reveals feel justified by the rest of the film.

The film also excels in terms of characters work. The arcs of the characters are fairly standard as far as animated films go, but honestly, they’re handled with such finesse that I just can’t find it in me to really care. It would have been nice to see a little bit more innovation, but the creators clearly chose to focus their energy elsewhere in terms of differentiating Kubo from other animated fare. Anyways, while it is a fairly standard series of character arcs, Kubo offers incredible takes on each of those, maximizing on the strength of their character dynamics.

What really pushes Kubo over the top is how well all of its elements intertwine with one another. The characters, plot, commentary, and animation have a symbiotic relationship with one another. Of course, this is something that most films do, and I generally take it for granted. But here, it’s not only done better than it is in most other films, but it feels more important to the film accomplishing its goals than normal. Its commentary on storytelling also comes across as far more powerful because of how well it tells a story.

Of course, there’s no way I could make it out of this review without saying something about the animation. Even Laika’s two weaker outings have had incredible aesthetics, and had everything else about Kubo been terrible, it would have at least gotten points for the same reason. The studio has a style of animation that they apply to all of their films, but Kubo sees a few interesting innovations to that style, as well as some really cool new uses of it. The story uses living origami creations, and every scene involving those was absolutely awe inspiring. There’s also some surprisingly creepy imagery in this film, considering its primary audience skews younger. That said, this is the studio that did Coraline so I shouldn’t be too surprised.

Kubo and the Two Strings is easily one of the best movies of this year–up there with the likes of The Neon Demon, Green Room, and The Nice Guys. There’s very little that the film does wrong, and most of my critiques come down to minor nitpicks that I don’t think are even worth mentioning. I mean, could the film have been better? Yeah, but getting it the last 10% or so of the way to being a perfect film seems kind of unrealistic. Hopefully by the time this review goes up (which is unfortunately quite a well after the film first hit theaters), you’ll still have the opportunity to go see it. It’s an opportunity that should not be passed up.