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  • Ben Nadeau

Kubo and the Two Strings' Underrated Brilliance and Uphill Struggle for Success

Focus Features, Laika Entertainment

In a world so thoughtful and unique, Kubo and the Two Strings truly deserved better.

Sure, it was nominated for Best Animated Feature and Best Visual Effects at the Oscars in 2016 – but, four years later, this deep-cut treasure has been all but forgotten. Despite Laika – the studio behind Coraline – and the team’s best efforts to tick all the boxes of a well-loved (and lucrative) film, it hardly left a cultural footprint. Struck down by the worldwide hit Zootopia, it’s still hard to believe that Kubo isn’t a chicken-soup-for-the-soul staple for children, parents, and childless adults alike – a hero’s epic that boundlessly employs magic and the power of love to transcend any obstacle, including death.

Led by Charlize Theron’s tender, tough love and Matthew McConnaughy’s slapstick comic relief, Kubo’s star-studded cast is backed by an original score from Dario Marianelli (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice), a combination that thrusts the film beyond an ordinary tale about adventure and acceptance. Spiritually, Kubo constantly reiterates the importance of memory. As the titular character loses and gains important figures from his past – and continues to do so throughout the film – director Travis Knight and his script have plenty of takeaways.

“Just give me a second… no, no, no – it’s gone,” Kubo's recollection-challenged mother frets near the film’s opening. “I can’t, I’m sorry – perhaps I could recall a different story.”

It’s no coincidence that a large portion of the main cast struggles with their mindfulness, and Kubo himself must reckon with having no memories of his father at all. But just because somebody is gone, that doesn’t mean they’ve been forgotten – no, the journey simply changes.

Early and often, Knight pushes all the right buttons, while the gorgeous stop-motion carries the emotional weight of a suddenly-orphaned protagonist with a heavy heart and an even tougher task at hand.

But here is where we discover Kubo and the Two Strings’ most fatal crime: It didn’t come from Pixar.

In fact, since the Best Animated Feature category was unveiled at the Oscars in 2001, Pixar Animation Studios has come away with the top prize in 10 of the 19 years. And once we factor in five combined wins for the unlimited budgets of Disney (Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia) and DreamWorks (Shrek, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), that barely leaves an opening for the smaller studios.

Even the unimpeachable Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki have only taken home one of their three nominations (Spirited Away in 2001), while Village Roadside (Happy Feet), Paramount (Rango), and Sony (Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse) also snagged a single trophy apiece. Further, Shrek, Happy Feet, and Spider-Verse are the only films to take down a Pixar nomination head-to-head.

Up against the world’s biggest animation studios, Laika never stood a chance.

Focus Features, Laika Entertainment

Founded in 2005, the Oregon-based company has made five movies and landed five Best Animated Feature nominations – Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014), Missing Link (2019), and, of course, Kubo (2016). If that sounds unprecedented, it is – even the mighty Pixar has missed the nomination lineup five times since the category was created. In each instance, however, Laika was defeated by a far higher grossing film.

Animated Feature nominees are voted on by members of the Academy's Animation Branch, or those generally more attuned to recognizing the artistry of Laika, while the winners are then voted on by the full academy membership. Consistently, that group leans toward the more popular or bigger box office hit – a systemic issue seen throughout the ceremony, not just in animation.

Based on their Rotten Tomatoes scores, they’re Oscar-worthy – the lowest, a 77% for Boxtrolls; the highest, a 97% for Kubo – but the money aspect of these endeavors has always come up on the shorter side.

Together, Laika’s films have grossed a total of $444.7 million – a number that Finding Dory and Incredibles 2’s U.S. and Canada sales surpass alone at $486.3 and $608.6, respectively. On top of all that, Chicken Run (2000) stands as the top-grossing stop-motion animated movie of all-time at $224.8 million… which still falls more than halfway short of Rio 2 ($498.8), the 50th-highest-grossing animated movie. Whether it’s a lack of public interest in stop-motion, insufficient marketing, or simply a foregone conclusion against the deep pockets of their industry rivals, it mostly ends up a crying shame – Kubo is that excellent.

Many of Kubo’s most emotional moments belong to Theron and her soothing-but-firm readings as Monkey, a character magically summoned from a lifelong charm. Unsurprisingly, she puts in some of her finest work to date, a real accomplishment given the laundry list of iconic roles she has collected over the years. Shifting from compassionate guardian to snarling bodyguard at the drop of a hat, Theron is able to transform an occasionally heavy-handed script into something that feels revolutionary – despite its retelling of a story we’ve heard our entire lives.

As one of two animated movies to ever snag a Best Visual Effects nomination – joining 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas Kubo’s understated brilliance is conveyed through Japanese culture and music. Strumming along on his conjuring-enhanced shamisen, Kubo is quickly forced to grow beyond his floating-origami showmanship and into the bravest of fighters. Coco, another absolute classic from Pixar, was released a year later and hits many of the same notes – a grieving child explores his cultural and familial ties with the help of an instrument and a cast of ragtag characters, plus their hidden identities.

But there was one major and separating difference amid the pairing: Coco would go on to win well-deserved Oscars for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song, raking in over $800 million in worldwide earnings. Kubo, naturally, made just $77.5 million.

That said, the handcrafted love in each scene is ever-apparent – between the animation, voice work, script, props, and score, it still remains a challenge to pick a favorite element. Among the many bittersweet messages found in the film, few are more reflective than a speech Monkey gives prior to the grand finale battle. While walking with Kubo and Beetle, the latter asks what the birds are singing about, and Theron dives in headfirst.

“Many say the song is about what happens when we die, how we don’t just disappear,” Monkey explains. “Like Kubo’s paper, we shift. We transform, so we can continue our story to another place. The end of one story is merely the beginning of another.”

Accordingly, Kubo and the Two Strings will never get the shine and praise it rightfully earned, but Laika, Theron, and their talented team can rest assured knowing that this is not an adventure we’ll forget anytime soon.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Zootopia.


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