Magical; from beginning to end.
In a sea of very pretty, but pretty ridiculously predictable animation like Zootopia, Inside Out, and silliness like Minions, Kubo provides something new and wonderful. Even taking into account its anime and cultural roots, it forges its own path, in large part due to the stop-motion work that brings the story to life. It isn’t just the type of humor or the story, it is the depth of the characters and the complexity of the relationships. This is animation fit for older kids through adults. It isn’t reliant on pop-culture recognition (with one minor inside joke) or music. It is about people, family, and the journey of life in a surprisingly openly discussed way. Only Anomalisa comes to mind as being a worthy comparison of achievement, but that is for a very different audience.
Art Parkinson (San Andreas, Game of Thrones) lends voice to Kubo. He manages to be both serious and wide-eyed, self-composed but also young. It is a great performance without reverting to sappiness, even though you’ll cry more than once during the tale in joy and sadness. Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) provides a great foil for Parkinson as he grows up all too quickly. Likewise Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar), though at times he is a bit more like The Tick than I’d have liked. Aligned against Kubo, Ralph Fiennes (Spectre) and Rooney Mara (Carol) are suitably honeyed evil… logical and focused, but with a good story to sell to their grandson/nephew. Two delightful surprises in the cast were George Takei (To Be Takei) and Brenda Vaccaro, both of whom have some great moments.
Laika has continued to evolve since its initial Coraline, which was differently wonderful in its own right, to the sweet, small-town tale of ParaNorman, which then shifted into the high fantasy wonderfulness of The Boxtrolls, and now to the adult depths of Kubo. Kubo, whose themes and subtlety, art direction and script beat them all. And Travis Knight, who was lead animator on the previous two Laika films took his lessons well in his first directing gig. If it doesn’t win him an Oscar, I may well scream.
This is a film you not only should support, but if you don’t see it on a big screen you’re cheating yourself. It is a magical fantasy you can fall into, and when you surface a couple hours later you’ll find the world a more dull but loving place. As a gift to animation and as a great way to end a summer of sequels and generally weak movies, I can only hope this film finds its audience.