We saw this movie over the weekend because of glowing reviews and as some kind of counter-programming from a dull summer blockbuster season. This is coming from someone who enjoys comic books and superhero films. Unfortunately, I can’t really understand all the adulation of Kubo. The movie never meets the expectations it sets and seems to be gathering most of its praise due to some kind of hipster iconoclasm that praises the stop motion animation.
First, let me tackle the much lauded visuals. I don’t really care that it is stop motion. On an intellectual level what they did was amazing. However, at this point it would be easier to use 3D computer animation to simulate stop motion than it is to actually do stop motion. Also I am not sure the distinctive stop motion style really adds much here. In general there were very few scenes of visual splendor and awe and most of them were because of some gorgeous backgrounds. As such it’s very hard to concur with reviewers praising the movie’s visuals and it certainly does not substitute for the movie’s other flaws.
Second, the dialogue in this movie is mediocre and verging on bad. Most of the jokes fall flat and seem like an obligatory sop to the convention of animated films and to the younger viewers in the audience. The rest of it often falls flat, like the monkey trying to be intimidating or the witch sister’s pretty much every utterance. There is also a lot of pseudo-philosophical rambling that tries to add depth to the film but such explicit musings are usually a sign that the story is handling the topic poorly and that is the case here as well.
On a macro level, it was really the plot that let the movie down. The movie opens with a scene of a woman literally parting a squall with a burst of energy from her sitar. Then the first part of the movie reveals that she is hiding him from gods and that Kubo himself is half-divine. This could lead to some epic American Gods or Illium level god smackdown. Instead Kubo partakes on a rather bland adventure to acquire some unimpressive artifacts that appear to be lying around for no articulated reason. There are some decent action scenes along the way, though you wonder why all the gods seem to abandon their magic to fight with melee weapon or turn into glowing centipedes rather than just smudge Kubo off the map.
However, the ending almost ruins the movie. It kills off some major characters quite abruptly, but due to poor quality of their interactions earlier, it doesn’t have the emotional punch the filmmakers wanted. Then the movie just kind of fastforwards to the final confrontation between Kubo and his grandfather. It turns out all those artifacts were Mcguffins. Instead we get some trite nonsense about memories. The movie ends with the grandfather being turned human with a bad case of amnesia. At that point the village engages in a conspiracy of lying where they embed him with made-up memories to sway him towards good. It seemed antithetical to the entire movie and the immediately prior scene about memories.
The movie really needed to expand on its mythology and present some kind of internal conflict for Kubo. There was an eye monster that revealed unsettling truths, but they didn’t take advantage of that. Maybe juxtapose the perfection of godhood and the inadequacies of mortality. Maybe it’s just the fantasy lover in me, but there was also a scope for some epic battles with gods and a young boy coming into his powers that are largely untapped.
Then there are just inconsistencies. Why are the divine sisters caricatures of evil, but the third sister looks like a typical woman? Why did they easily overpower the third sister but succumb to a monkey and an untrained boy later? What was the point of the artifacts and why was one just sitting in a town unknown?
I don’t know, this movie teased a much better movie. While the team has their technical craft down, after five years their plot and characterization could have been much better. This, in my mind, was just another mediocre 2015/2016 movie release.