KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS
Laikas previous films have received a good deal of critical acclaim but that poured in in accolades for Kubo and the Two Strings, which made some critics Top 10 of the 2016 lists. The film feels like Laika have put everything they have into it artistically. Every aspect of the film feels handcrafted. This includes the largest set ever built for a stop-motion production something you can briefly see in the live-action scenes that play out over the opening credits. Their efforts make for what is quite a stunning achievement like the opening scene where we even have stop-motion animated storms and waves.
Laika also aim for something far more than the average animated film. You could compare Kubo and the Two Strings to almost all of the output from DreamWorks, Illumination and Blue Sky. Where they place emphasis on simple-minded arcs and easy audience-identifying comic supporting relief, Laika take a big bite and aim to tell a serious, epic story. You only need compare the supporting characters. Matthew McConaugheys Beetle is another variant on Buzz Lightyear, the hero tripping over his own self-certainty, while much of the show is stolen by Charlize Therons fierce and sagacious Monkey. In any film from the abovementioned studios, the two talking characters would be played for maximum slapstick comic relief, whereas here they at most engage in wry banter.
Kubo and the Two Strings is not based on any particular Japanese legend although there are undeniable similarities to Studio Ghiblis recent The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013). It pays more respect to Japanese culture than you would expect of a US-made film, although there are a few anachronistic modern touches that sneak in Kubo, Monkey and Beetle play a game of I Spy at one point. Certainly, as an epic fantasy, it is not entirely satisfying. Kubo comes into his powers a little too quickly, most of the story that drives the show consists of a routine Plot Coupons quest to gather objects, before a big climactic showdown where Kubo faces a dragon well just because. Somehow you suspect that if the film had chosen to focus on the events that form the backstory of the film, it might have worked even more epically as a story.
The downside of the film for me is that Laika have pushed the art to such a flawless level that what they are now making is indistinguishable from standard CGI animation. This is the problem that Laika and other purveyors of the stop-motion form such as some of the more recent Aardman films like Arthur Christmas (2011) and The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012) face these days. The stop-motion has become so flawless and is so massaged by post-production visual effects that it is just assumed to be regular animation and the amount of painstaking effort goes unappreciated by the public who are unaware of the difference.