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World Cinema, Film Review: Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) 24/04/2017

Figure 1: Kubo and The Two Strings
This film review will focus on the film 'Kubo and The Two Strings' (2016), this tale follows the story of a young boy known as Kubo. With no explanation, we see him with a magic shamisen that can control origami, a lucid/ill mother and an missing eye. He embarks on a journey to discover the full potential of his power, as well as avenge what his grandfather the moon king had taken from him and exact his revenge on the family that made him, but also broke him.

The film was released in 2016, was directed by Travis Knight and was also produced by Travis Knight, as well as Arianne Sutner. The story was written by Shannon Tindle and Marc Haimes, Dario Marianelli composed the music and the animation was done by Laika. Laika is known for doing stop motion animations, they have previously worked on 'Coraline' (2009), 'Boxtrolls' (2014) and 'Paranorman' (2012), all generally well received films, but Kubo is one of their best-received films of all time, and it's not hard to see why.

This film is unique in the sense that it not only uses a fairly old animation technique that requires a high level of skill to pull off correctly, but it also takes so many risks in the development of the film, but it pays off. Kubo does a weird thing in that it takes old animation and 'Updates' it, into modern standards. Techniques are implemented from various sources and modified in order to make the film look as polished as possible. Kubo is a new standard and example for all films to look up to, it takes risks that would be in a logical sense, not beneficial, but every risk, every choice and every second of animation can be seen clearly on screen. "The movie is a huge swing, and delivers a level of visual wonder and magic that the likes of Pixar or Disney Animation simply can't match, not even when they push themselves with something like Inside Out. Part of it is the nature of stop-motion animation itself; there's something about the physical reality of frame-by-frame puppeteering that will always create a tactile sense of wonder that can't be duplicated in any other way." (Bishop, 2016)

Figure 2: Hanzo and Kubo
So to start with "How is Kubo an American film?", firstly it needs to be said what it isn't. The film's art style is heavily based off of the Chinese aesthetic, using shapes and forms which would only be seen in Chinese culture. The first look we get at this the design of all the characters, all bearing semi-thin eyes to show that the characters are from the Chinese culture. That combined with things like Chinese lanterns, samurais, and Chinese architecture, it easy to see what the art style is based off. However, it is worth noting how this art style is 'Inspired' by Chinese design, the keyword here being 'Inspired'. The designs are taken from Chinese culture and are given a twist to fit the art style Kubo has created. So the art style is Chinese inspired, so where does America come into the film? Well, the studio that created it is American, but it did bring in support from the Chinese as well. People like Taro Goto were brought onboard in order to create this film's Authenticity, giving the art team a lot more to work with.

Now away from the Chinese aspects of the film and now some of the American traits, to start with is some of the film's innovation. The puppets in the film are not only beautifully animated, but they are also a modern rework of how stop motion animation is created. The best example of this is the giant skeleton at about the 1/3 mark into the film, it is the largest stop-motion puppet ever built and works through a means of an exoskeleton rig on the puppet. Now, this puppet stands out for a number of reasons, but the main one being that it is a literal example of innovation. Taking an old technique and creating something completely original out of it, showing American innovation and creativity.

The quality of the stop motion animation is actually quite impressive, the entire film seems seamless, something some stop frame animations can seem to occasionally seem to lose track of. For one of the oldest techniques used in animation, this particular style feels very smooth and polished. All of the characters and monsters all seem alive and full of character, however, the monsters are some of the films biggest risks and greatest achievements. To start with, the Skeleton Guardian is the biggest and most complex stop-motion puppet ever built, even at one point it is stated by one of the animators that "At first I was fairly nervous and a little bit scared. No-one has ever animated a puppet this large before. If he was assembled, this skeleton couldn't fit in this building. (C Greenfield. 2016) So working with something that had never been attempted before, essentially taking a massive risk in production, it pays off and the true scale of this thing really shows on screen.

The Garden of Eyes is by far the most beautiful creature/creatures out of the three main creatures. They have these huge glowing eyes that at the same time make them seem extremely terrifying but also very calming until you see the very spiky version of the Sarlacc pit from 'Star Wars Episode Six: Return of the Jedi.' (1983), and even then the pit itself is still very beautiful, leaning towards the theme of keeping its victims mesmerized.

The Moon King, as the best-animated creature in the whole film, even down to the facial animations, it's important to keep in mind this creature is still a puppet, and yet it can fly, roar, fight and talk incredibly well, once again the animation being seamless and something that is an achievement as well as a work of art.  "Watching Kubo turn flat pieces of paper into tiny warriors or an undulating origami swarm of birds, or an underwater swimmer surrounded by floating eyeballs, or a climactic stand-off between our hero and a giant, serpent-like spirit, you forget you're essentially watching things being painstakingly, microscopically manipulated. And then you remember that this is indeed the product of artists working with small figures on a grand scale, and you find yourself staring at the onscreen sound and fury in awe. The work here is fluid and near-flawless — which is as an apt description for the entire film as any." (Fear, 2016)

Each monster in the film has its own quirks and 'Stand Out Aspects', this may not have been intentional but the fact that all of the beasts in the film have their own 'Stand Out Aspect' makes them more memorable.

Figure 3: Kubo's Final Battle with The Moon King
There are techniques in the film (Narratively) that can be easily spotted, the main one being Freytag's Pyramid, and it stays true in the film. There is a very clear beginning, middle and end for the film, and whilst the ending of the film may not be as rewarding as other films, e.g. 'Walle' (2009), and it doesn't tie up all of its loose ends it does reach a somewhat solid conclusion, also to note is how this a film is a very clear portrayal of the hero journey. We have our main cast for the film, the Hero figure being Kubo, Monkey is the mother figure and Beetle is the father figure and our main antagonist is the Moon King.

The theme of the story which is something taken from our current time, mixed with redemption. The situation that Kubo is put in (The situation in question being his retribution.) is created in a way that a lot of people could probably relate too, both the loss of his parents, twice technically, or the loss of an icon figure or a loved one is something people can relate to. Him having to deal with the loss of his parents at such a young age is not only good for Kubo but is also good for the audience. Kubo's situation could be compared to a lot of people of either didn't have guardians as children of children who are currently going through this hardship. It's a powerful message of "No matter your circumstance, push on and you will achieve your victory.", and the fact that this is a kids film as well makes this message even more powerful that it already is.

The narrative of the film seems rather simplistic, a young boy sets out on a quest to defeat an unimaginable evil and reclaim what he has lost. The American aspect of this is that all of these traits have been blended together, creating a somewhat stereotypical film, but at the same time not sticking completely to that stereotype.

Figure 4: Monkey
The music and choice of instruments in the film once again relates to Chinese culture, Flutes and shamisen are used to convey that real Chinese vibe in the film. The composer Dario Marianelli must have done a lot of work when deciding the tone for the film's music. Special care has been taken to use melodies that can be associated with the films culture as well as American action themes. The first sister encounter portrays this very well, having a blend of the Chinese instruments, mixed with some American musical themes.

The final thing to talk about is the film's theme on origami, right from the get-go, the film shows us one of the film's main themes. A child able to control origami, and is able to blend them into, characters, creature and even a boat. The origami theme can be seen throughout the film, from the design of the characters to the design of the environments. Everything feels like it has a set of rules to abide by, so when the theme of Origami comes up, it's easy to spot and easy to enjoy.

Kubo could be seen as somewhat of an icon figure for either adopted or fostered kids, for he would have been in the same circumstance as a lot of children. This film is a blend of American innovation, Chinese Artistic Direction, and Raw Humanity. Its an incredibly powerful film that anyone should go and watch, not for the sake of seeing a stop motion action flick, but to see how despite everything Kubo has had done wrong to him, he is still willing to do the right thing rather than what is expected, which is something that a lot of younger generations seems to have forgotten. This film is humanization at its finest. "While an unexpected step up from 2014 charmer The Boxtrolls, much will be spoken of Kubo's box office struggles. Ignore it; if this year's equally as enjoyable yet more commercially viable animated hit Zootropolis enabled children to enjoy cinema, Kubo and the Two Strings will allow them to fall in love with it." (Stolworthy, 2016)


Bishop, B. (2016) 
Kubo and the Two Strings review: when beauty is almost more important than storytelling.
(Accessed on 24 April 2017)

Fear, D. (2016)
'Kubo and the Two Strings' Review: 2016's First Animated Masterpiece.
Kubo and the Two Strings 'Creatures of Darkness' Featurette (2016).
(Accessed on 24 April 2017)

Stolworthy, J. (2016)
Kubo and the two Strings, review: 'A marvellous adventure for both adults and children'.