Style Over Sustenance
Imagine a boutique cereal company that has cooked up a litigation-proof version of Cap'n Crunch. Not another off-brand, bottom-shelf knock-off, mind you: these high-fructose nuggets are identical to the famous breakfast brand's in every way, down to the sharp surface grooves that practically beg consumers not to eat more than a handful at a time.
Sales are good right out of the gate, thanks in large part to the CEO's well-rehearsed media blast in which she describes the painstaking process for crafting each nugget, a method so absurdly "traditional" as to be archaically inefficient.
"Every day," says the proprietor of Nautic'l Nuggets Sea-real, Inc., "three-hundred-and-fifty-three Le Cordon Bleu Paris-trained culinary artisans clock in at our eighty-thousand-square-foot Modesto facility. They hand-roll tons of grain; refine our secret blend of sugars and (actual) natural flavors; stir and bake each batch with Djrfürk Mighty Oak cooking spoons, and pass trays of freshly-baked product between them, down a multi-tiered production line (no conveyor belts here). The journey climaxes at our nine-hundred-foot-long cooling station, a replica country farmhouse window sill in the Swedish style that's so exacting, we've erected a rolling pasture with grass-fed cows for our li'l golden guys to look out on as they await packaging.
"Speaking of which," the exec continues, "we place each nugget, one at a time, into hand-pressed (of course) boxes made exclusively from materials grown in the pasture and surrounding planned woods. It used to take seven hundred man-hours to make one box of Nautic'l Nuggets, but we'll be down to six-twelve by year's end. I'm sure of it."
Kubo and the Two Strings (and the output of independent animation studio, Laika, in general) is like Nautic'l Nuggets: a sugary, well-promoted, and labor-intensive mediocrity. Yes, it looks gorgeous. Yes, the filmmakers snagged brand-name Oscar winners as headliner voice talent. Yes, the artisans who made the puppets emote and the set pieces sparkle deserve all the accolades they're getting. But just as Jared Leto's highly reported on-set antics didn't make Suicide Squad one goddamned iota more interesting, the fact that hundreds of passionate craftspeople spent years arranging objects and snapping pictures doesn't change the fact that they did so in service of an embarrassingly nonsensical script.
Think of it this way: Michael Bay is currently in production on his fifth Transformers movie. Behind him are an army of digital artists--from character designers to riggers to animators--who will have also spent years bringing a singular vision to life. They wield styluses and mice instead of X-Acto blades, and the singular vision in question happens to be based on a decades-old toy line, but their commitment is no less real. Yet no serious film critic would ever go out of their way to suggest that considerable efforts from multiple, globe-spanning departments warrants giving these particularly ill-conceived movies any kind of pass.*
Believe it or not, my harsh opinion of Kubo and the Two Strings has softened in the two days since I saw it, thanks in large part to a great conversation I had with Keeping It Reel's David Fowlie. He gave himself over to Travis Knight's take on ancient Japanese legends in a way that I simply couldn't. David's enjoyment echoes that of many Laika fans, critic and civilian alike, who commit to the ride without getting caught up, necessarily, in the mechanics. I'm in the minority opinion (no surprise there), and to convey the reasons for that disconnect, we must strap on our sandals and venture into spoiler territory.
Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a one-eyed boy who lives with his mother (Charlize Theron) in a cave overlooking a medieval village. Every day, Kubo plays his magical shamisen in the village, strumming delightful melodies that bring stacks of brightly colored paper to life as comedic, origami street theater. He can never stay out past sunset, though, because, as mom warns him, the evil spirits of his twin aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara) and grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), will find him and pluck out his other eye.
Of course, he loses track of the time one evening, and encounters his villainous extended family. During the ensuing confrontation, Kubo's mother shows up and uses the last of her already weakened abilities to give Kubo magical wings and temporarily thwart her demonic sisters. Kubo awakens in the company of a talking monkey (also Theron), who tells him that he must embark on an epic quest to retrieve a magical sword, helmet, and chest plate in order to defeat the Moon King once and for all. Along the way, Kubo and Monkey pick up an origami samurai and a dimwitted former-samurai-turned-mutant-beetle-man (Matthew McConaughey).
If this sounds like a bit much for a ninety-five-minute kids' movie, I've only described half the plot. The downside of not being able to slip away on a tide of animated fantasia is actually having to be aware of all the "business" Knight throws into his run-time. My mind wandered to places my soul couldn't, and in that dark, dark valley, questions bloomed like poisonous roses whose thorns choked the joy out of my moviegoing experience; questions such as:
1. How many times can characters sacrifice themselves for one another before the act becomes meaningless?**
2. Why do the makers of the live-action Ghost in the Shell remake take heat for "whitewashing" their film by casting Scarlett Johansson in the lead role, when Laiks's Asian-themed family film is hailed for the voice work of two of Hollywood's biggest, whitest actors? Is it because we don't see voice actors? If so, does that make the situation more or less offensive?
3. At what point is it safe to officially call Kubo a mash-up of Kill Bill and Harry Potter? Vengeful father figure sends assassins to kill the man his daughter-figure has fallen in love with. After suffering severe head trauma, she goes into hiding with her child and is also eventually killed. The orphaned child trains in the ways of the Hanzo sword (plus magic) and confronts an evil snake-wizard, voiced by Ralph Fiennes. Bad-ass eye-patch iconography also figures heavily into the film.
I'm all for complicated plots, but Marc Haimes and Chris Butler's screenplay is downright convoluted, and lacking in the connective tissue that the animated-feature titans at Pixar specialize in. I would have loved to have been invested in the heroes' fight against a skeleton-giant with swords jammed in its skull, or thrilled to the sight of Kubo navigating an underwater spawning ground for hungry eyeball creatures. Instead, I wondered why Kubo didn't just build a planet-sized papier-mâché fist out of his enchanted sticky notes and clobber his pesky kin. Is glowing armor really that much more effective? And what does God need with a starship?
Sorry, I'm wandering off course.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a terrific advertisement for its own "Art of" book and the inevitable t-shirts and Funko Pop figurines that will be the hit of Anime conventions and comic-cons for years to come, I'm sure. But it doesn't earn the dramatic moments or grander themes it goes out of its way to assure us are resonant. Inside Out has more insight about family, loss, and sacrifice in its background gags than Kubo does in any three of its Capital-"H"-Heavy scenes. It is as much a marvel of storytelling and psychology as it is a visual sensation.
I'm rooting for Laika to come up with something that fires on all cylinders, maybe a project that takes full advantage of their penchant for truly horrific nightmare imagery. But I have this sinking feeling that they'll be content to rail against their perceived soulless corporate rivals, churning out indie animations that make just enough profit to keep the staff up to their eyeballs in armatures and clay. If this indeed their mentality, and their trajectory, I fear they may never penetrate the pop consciousness in any significant way. They'll just be one of the nameless rabble working exceedingly hard at not being Cap'n Crunch.
*Joke's on me. Turns out I recommended Transformers: Age of Extinction as one of 2014's better popcorn flicks. More accurately, I recommended the handful of visually engaging parts and some of the character moments. Like Kubo, though, I didn't think it held together as a coherent film.
**The answer, I'm sure, lies somewhere between this film and Star Trek Beyond.