When Kubo and the Two Strings premiered in August 2016, it pulled in just over $12 million dollars in its first 3 days. It was the second-highest opener that weekend after War Dogs, and landed ahead of the Ben Hur remake. In he following 4 months eventually earned $70 million worldwide; not surprising, considering its cerebral artfulness. Also not surprising: critics loved Kubo, calling it “Seductive”, “Thrilling,” and “Impressive.”
Would this be enough to put it on the Academy’s radar? Most assuredly. Kubo and the Two Strings scored two Oscar nominations, Best Animated Feature, and in a surprise nomination, Best Visual Effects. The last time an animated feature earned a Visual Effects nomination was in 1993 for Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Kubo’s Rotten Tomatoes rating currently standds at 97% approval rating with critics and 87% with audiences.
For the first time ever, the Costume Designers Guild nominated an animated film, recognizing Deborah Cook for her detailed diminutive costume work on Kubo. It was the first time a stop-motion animation had scored a CDG nomination in its 19-year history.
Kubo and the Two Strings is nominated alongside Disney’s Zootopia and Moana. The former won Best Animated Feature at last weekend’s Producers Guild Awards and is currently the frontrunner for Oscar gold. But before you cast your vote, think for a second about Kubo and the Two Strings and let’s not dismiss it just yet.
Hot on the heels of Laika Studios Boxtrolls, Coraline and Paranorman comes Kubo and the Two Strings, a breathtaking and captivating film that opens with, “If you must blink, do it now…” from that moment onward we are drawn into Kubo’s world.
Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, and Ralph Fiennes are the famous voices in Kubo, but the characters are so well thought out and wonderfully developed that the voices serve more to enhance the character than distract us.
In a Japanese village, a young boy named Kubo sits telling stories to his audience, using music and origami to create a hypnotic atmosphere. Kubo enchants his crowd as he uses his magical musician instrument to bring his origami to life. Once he’s done telling his stories, he returns to his mother who is suffering from a fading memory.
His mother warns him never to venture out late at night, telling her son that if he stays out late, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) will seek him out with dangerous intentions. It’s an ominous foreshadowing. Next thing we know, he ignores his mother’s caution and does precisely what he was told not to do. Consequences descend swiftly. Kubo is attacked by two sisters who are without doubt the “baddies.” They want to steal his last remaining eye, and so begins Kubo’s adventure to find the magical armor in a quest to defeat the monsters that haunt his life.
The humor in the film comes courtesy of Charlize Theron’s Monkey and Matthew McConnaughey’s Beetle characters.
Kubo could use a little humor in his life. His existence is filled with accelerating pain and anxiety – his mother’s descent into dementia. There’s relief when his mother, for a brief moment briefly returns. Bravery when his companions help him triumph.
The magic of stop-motion is of course nothing new to us lovers of Oscar-caliber animation. In fact, this year My Life As A Zucchini is also a stop-motion animated feature. But the unique delicacy Kubo and the Two Strings is magically exquisite. Maybe it’s enchanting because of the mythical nature of its folklore story, or maybe it’s just because it sweeps you into this visually stunning world, and you don’t want to blink because you might miss something. Gliding through dreamlike settings and landscapes, whether they be mountains, ship, or even the open sea, what we observe and absorb in Kubo and the Two Strings is a marvel in every frame.
Deborah Cook’s engineering of costumes, researching Ancient Japanese Culture date back to 300 BC but convey a lovely resonance to modern-day Japanese culture (Issey Miyake’s fabric folds served as influence for Kubo’s kimono). Translating these for malleable stop-motion fabrication is worthy of the well-earned nomination from the Costume Designer Guild. There is an ineffable beauty to her work when you see it on screen, particularly in the form of the sisters with their feather inspired outfits.
Another element that I found completely enchanting was the score by composer Dario Marianelli. The Shamisen (Kubo’s stringed instrument) is truly a beautiful medieval banjo. The majestic atmospherics of Kubo allow Marianelli to combine the Shamisen with strings and bass and wood instruments as he carves out a score that is as seamless as the film itself, immersing you in echoes of ancient Japan and modern Japan alike. A transcendent cover of Regina Spektor’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps is indelible and haunting.
Kubo and the Two Strings is Travis Knight’s first directorial feature. We applaud Knight and the LAIKA team for delivering such an elegantly-wrought animated feature in an era of so much flashy swagger. Kubo deserves your careful attention before you mark an X automatically next to Zootopia. Disney never fails and it doesn’t with Moana and Zootopia. The latter is definitely a tale that couldn’t be more relevant, when seen through the fractured lens of a world trying to cope with so much prejudices and bias, but consider the fine films LAIKA has delivered. Consider the beauty that lies in Kubo and the Two Strings, and consider whether to honor this boy’s brave quest as you choose your Best Animated Feature.