I call my review title this despite the movie becoming one of my favorite stop-motion animated features, even rivaling The Nightmare Before Christmas. It's just that when I went to see this film, there were even less people in the theatre I was in than when I went to see Ice Age Collision Course! I then looked up how much it has earned and I was surprised to find out how little it's making. Ok, I heard that Boxtrolls didn't receive much praise like Coraline and Paranorman did, yet it doesn't mean that Kubo and the Two Strings should be destined to only deserve barely enough money in the box office to pay back it's budget because of such, because viewers are really missing out on this.
And on with the film review.
Let's start with the animation;
What I can say is that Laika went through some impressive feats to make this film feel epic. First off, whereas one can tell a film is in stop-motion with animation in less frames per second in other studios like Aardman with Wallace and Gromit, Laika's more fluent animation nearly blends in with CGI, such as the scene in the beginning of that trailer above with the woman on the boat and the ocean. Second, the choreography in the action scenes are impressive with the main character with his friends and family battling giant creatures and villains, actually, even the fights with origami figures the lead character conjures up is fun to watch. Finally, I am rather surprised that the budget of this film is the same budget as the other Laika films, because this one probably has some of the most impressive creature models, including a Gashadokuro, and one of these two giant skeleton variants being the record holding largest stop-motion puppet built so far standing at 16 feet! During the end credits following the story of the film being summarized in illustrations, we were able to see how the team at Laika were able to set up the massive Gashadokuro before it comes to life and proceeds to snack on one of the animators when his back is turned. It was a treat to see some behind the scenes after the film.
Next are the visuals and the soundtrack. In terms of the visuals, the film succeeds in making it feel like an ancient Japanese world and there is no shortage of different environments the characters travel across. From villages to forests, from fields to glaciers and from caves to seas, it gives a variety to witness. The lighting and shadows also help set the tone whenever it is light hearted or dark and threatening. This balances well with the music that helps set the theme of adventure and danger as well as tragedy at the beginning and Regina Spektor's While My Guitar Gently Weeps fit well at the end credits. Not to mention this is not a musical so there's hardly much singing that would interrupt the tone.
And that leaves us with the plot and characters, it's about a kid who embarks on a quest with a monkey, a beetle and an origami samurai to retrieve his family sword, armor and helmet while uncovering the history of his family. With that said, if you must blink to avoid the spoilers below, DO IT NOW! Because if you look away, even for an instant, your experience of seeing this movie surely won't perish.
The story is solid and I enjoy these characters a lot as I don't think there is anyone in the film that I would have a problem with.
Kubo's character portrays him as a child quite well. He is not a super hero despite having mystic powers that he channels into his instrument as he doesn't use his powers seriously in the beginning and he is just as prone to needing to be saved as he is able to save his friends and family in dire situations. Yet it doesn't feel like the character is heavily forcing the viewers to relate to him with unnecessary relentless bullying (which is none-existent here) or constant whining and sobbing. He's a kid who learns that there are times he needs to use what he has responsibly and it works for a main character.
Another thing I like about this film is that although it seems like they tried to have some sort of comic relief with Beetle and probably the origami samurai, it's hardly that obvious to tell since the humor of all of the main characters works well off each other which gives some room to make these two in particular more significant. The red origami samurai is actually Kubo's reflection of what he viewed his dad to be, a proud mighty warrior on a quest for vengeance which makes the character's actions rather stern despite being small enough to fit in a pocket and not being able to speak. Beetle at first appears to just be another tag along yet he proves himself to be a worthy protector of Kubo with his excellent skill as a marksman especially with the bow and he actually had a close connection to Kubo's dad, fighting along side him before being cursed by his enemies into a giant bug.
However, my favorite character of them all has to be the monkey. Although there are a few humerous moments with her, she mostly overrides the animal stereotype of primates being complete clowns as monkey is the most serious member of the group. It makes even more sense that she is such because monkey is actually the spirit of Kubo's very mother incarnated into a wooden monkey charm he kept before she sacrificed herself to save him from her enemies. Basically not even her first death will stop this mother from protecting her son. Speaking of which, MAJOR SPOILERS, do not expect sugar coating with what happens to these supporting characters near the end, they do not take the classic Disney formula here.
And that leaves me with one of the only small problems I have with the film, the way the primary antagonists are represented. On one hand you have the two that steal the spotlight in villainy that'll fill children with nightmares, Kubo's aunts. With their Spector like prescience as well as haunting voice, wicked weapons and their smiling masks hiding a more aggressive grimace, these two are relentless in hunting down the main character for his remaining eye and filling his heart with dread. Yet what I find most haunting about them is that Kubo's mother could have also become one of them if she completed her original mission in killing Hanzo the Samurai instead of marrying him and giving birth to Kubo. To me, they could pretty much be enough to be the Big Bads in this film, however, they are not. They are only sentinels who are the build up to the main villain.
And the main villain is Raiden the Moon King, who unfortunately won't be in my top favorite animated villains list because of a few flaws. Although it made sense as to why he wanted to have Kubo's mother killed for feeling betrayed that she did not assassinate Hanzo, his want for Hanzo's death for questioning his rule doesn't feel very strong. Not to mention wanting Kubo's remaining eye to erase his memories and make him become immortal and join him doesn't feel all that potent for an act of revenge unless it's to insult his parents, and his fate in the end of the film is not really the best villain fate I have seen. Whatever the case, there are two things that he has which makes up for his shortcomings. One of them is that Raiden has an interesting scene where he's slowly loosing his calm personality, being replaced by savagery, as Kubo keeps denying his demands which helps build up for the epic showdown. And the second is that in the epic showdown, he transforms into quite possibly one of the coolest looking potentials for an articulated monster action-figure out there, he looks awesome when he's the Moon Beast, it's like a centipede serpent with a crustacean like hand at the tip of it's tail a Dunkleosteus head, and it's also interesting that Kubo's family arms and armor actually failed to smite him down.
Lastly, I might have an idea as to why the film itself is called Kubo and the Two Strings despite Kubo's Samisen having three. At the final part of the film, Kubo uses two strings that were wrapped around his wrist to fix his mystic Samisen to use as protection against the Moon Beast, and he then pulls out one of his hairs to make the third string. So basically one the strings Kubo uses on his instrument represents himself and the other two represents his mother and father. So the film's title would either be as it is or it would just be called The Three Strings, but that's just an idea that came up in my head.
Overall, despite a few flaws, the story is interesting, the visuals are amazing and the characters are memorable. This film is a masterpiece and it's a shame that it's not earning the amount it deserves. I highly recommend giving Kubo and the Two Strings a watch, especially if you are into stop-motion animation.