'Kubo And The Two Strings': Stop Motion Animation Minus The Magic

There's an increasing irony to the stop motion process employed by Laika Entertainment, especially apparent in their latest film, Kubo and the Two Strings. With Pixar and Disney's CGI creations dominating the field and even the Japanese powerhouse Studio Ghibli holding down the 2-D fort, Laika has crafted a niche within the tactile nature of stop motion production and the delight of seeing those figures move. But as Laika has improved their production process since their breakout hit Coraline in 2009, the studio has become more and more adept at making things more fluid, and its ambitions have led to a stronger reliance on computer technology. The creatures no longer show their seams, which seems to be lessening their magic.

There is still a great ingenuity to Kubo's world, which uses a standard hero's journey narrative set in the world of medieval Japan. At its most playful, the film brings to life various origami objects folded and controlled by the eponymous hero. Kubo begins his story as a one-eyed boy with a mysterious past and a protective but dementia-set mother. But after staying out in the night, his kabuki-mask wearing aunts appear to steal the boy's other eye and return him to his evil moon-dwelling grandfather. Complications ensue as the young boy must then journey across the lands with the help of a fussy monkey and an overenthusiastic samurai beetle to retrieve various pieces of armor, defeat evil magic, and learn lessons about the importance of storytelling.

At best, Kubo works as a sort-of adaptation of The Legend of Zelda, complete with various cel-shaded locales among snowy mountains, thorny jungles, and darkened temples. The boy works more or less as a blank slate despite the very grief-stricken and morbid past the film skirts around, while his companions play their necessary comic and dramatic roles until certain revelations attempt to give them added complexity. Films geared toward children need not create great moral complexity, but Kubo's aim for simplicity creates a sluggish pace; characters simply move from locale to locale to battle a foe or collect an object with only certain creature designs save it from total repetition. Not to mention discussions of "finding your story" get repeated every few minutes ad nauseam.

The stop motion provides Kubo with integrity, but more than Laika's previous features, the images feel slick instead of tangible. While the complete CGI world of something like Zootopia gave the "camera" a whirling velocity, the acrobatic moves here simply pull the film away from the stop motion creatures. It seems in trying to attempt to repeat the CGI standard, the sequences feel less comfortable exploring their own properties (not to mention the 3-D of the film dampens the colors to almost illegible darkness). During the credits, set to a blissful shamisen-strummed version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" by Regina Spektor, the film recounts the various events of the narrative in hand-painted 2-D images. They almost serve as a reminder that less can be more, and one wishes Laika's own animators followed that advice as well.

Kubo and the Two Strings opens everywhere on Friday.

Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.