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As of 2016, I believe Laika Entertainment is the most underappreciated American studio in Hollywood right now. There is no other American studio that works as hard, takes as much time to put out quality work, and almost never gets credit for their excellence. The only notable instance which Laika had received recognition from the film industry (a courtesy nomination for The Boxtrolls from the Academy Awards in the most surprisingly diverse Best Animated Feature category of 2016) was overshadowed by the bigger story of The Lego Movie getting snubbed from the category entirely. With the exception of their first film Coraline (a feature adaptation of a Neil Gaiman novella directed by Nightmare Before Christmas helmer Henry Selick), every film they’ve done have gotten rave reviews and have lost money at the box office.
2009: Coraline 90% 7.8/10; made $124M on a $60M budget
2012: ParaNorman 87% 7.3/10; $107M on $60M
2014: The Boxtrolls 75% 7/10; $109M on $60M
2016: Kubo and the Two Strings 96% 8.3/10; $12.6M for opening weekend when Boxtrolls opened at $17.2M
With as little money as Kubo has made so far, you’d think Laika’s entire marketing campaign consisted of putting brochures under the windshield wipers of cars around the busiest parking lots they could find. We could try to lay the blame to the usual suspects like the marketing department, but with Laika’s strongest voice cast to date (featuring 2014 Best Actor Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron coming off of Mad Max: Fury Road, and Ralph Fiennes coming off of The Grand Budapest Hotel and Spectre) and TV spots during the 2016 Rio Olympics, I think audience apathy plays more of a role than we think.
So if Laika is so great, why don’t they attract American audiences? They aren’t Disney. They don’t have cute talking animals. Nobody breaks out into unnecessary song & dance routines. Kubo‘s Japanese aesthetic isn’t reduced to Hello Kitty™ in order to sell toys. There aren’t any fart jokes to pander to babies. They elect for stop-motion animation with real physical models instead of rendering each character from the comfort of a computer desk. Unlike other studios, they treat their animators with care and respect. Most of all, they don’t view children as commodities to exploit for their parent’s money. Laika seems to have this radical idea that children are future contributors of society who need to learn important life lessons in their formative years. They’re mold-breakers, pioneers, and people who seek to do something new within their genre. Gee, you’d almost think that they were making movies for the art and not the commerce. And time and time again, they seem to get punished by American audiences for it.
There was another animation studio that did things differently some years ago. They didn’t make their name with song & dance numbers or knights in shining armor. Instead of starting their premises with “once upon a time”, they started their premises with “what if?” Instead of classic hand-drawn animation that Disney had popularized, they decided to risk their studio’s production budget with expensive state-of-the-art 3D computer-generated animation. They spearheaded this form of animation by creating the first feature length CG animated film and dominated the decade until it became the go-to animation method for American animated film studios. That company’s name was Pixar.
What if Laika is the next Pixar, but nobody is giving them a shot because of our culture of risk aversion? Over the last few years, people have gotten stingy over what movie they’ll spend their money on (assuming they’ve even gone to the theater at all). Movie tickets are too expensive these days. According to CBS News, the average ticket prices have gone from $8.17 in 2014 to $8.43 in 2015 (also the reason why we see box office records getting broken every other day despite theater attendance being the lowest ever since the ’90s). A 3% increase might not seem like such a dramatic increase until you realize that it’s outpacing the national inflation rate three times over. Movies are a luxury and people understandably want the most bang for their buck. Seeing the biggest, most epic, sweeping spectacle is the safest option for being entertained, right? Well, not exactly. How much bang for your buck are you getting when you’re watching the same idea played out over and over? How many explosions can you see until you realize it’s just loud noises and pretty lights? How much destruction to earth can be laid before you’re desensitized to it? Independence Day: Resurgence and X-Men: Apocalypse, despite following the formula of world-ending destruction, got criticized for the very reason that it’s too much like everything else. What really is riskier? Going to another cash-grab sequel that less than half of the audience enjoyed or a fresh innovative film that 96% of people enjoyed with a significant portion of that 96% raving about it? In other words, if you were Yelping a place to eat and both places were the same exact distance and price, would you rather go to a 2-star Jack-in-the-Box or a 4.5-star burger joint named Rick-in-a-Box? Exactly.
Really, the only thing keeping people from watching non-franchise films are the fact that they’re new. Please, step out of your comfort zone and don’t deny yourself the right to be as ecstatic about Kubo as everyone else who’s seen it is. Kubo and the Two Strings is a wonderful cinematic experience with the smoothest animation I’ve ever seen in the genre. Beyond the gorgeous visual style, the Japanese folklore it draws inspiration from provides interesting environments, character archetypes, and imaginative sequences involving banjos & origami paper. While there are themes that skew towards an adult audience, Kubo is, at its core, a family film that will make you thankful for spending time with your loved ones. The already mentioned stellar voice cast does an impeccable job with the material and Matthew McConaughey submits another charismatic show-stealing performance in his growing catalogue of excellent work. As far as story goes, Kubo has something for everyone whether you want action, comedy, romance, adventure, and even a scene or two of spookiness and thrills. Furthermore, if you stay through about 1/4th of the credits, you can get an awe-inspiring look at the skeleton and character models the Laika animation team put together for the film. Kubo and the Two Strings is a work of art that Laika deserves to be recognized and rewarded for putting together. For once.
My Rating: ★★★★ (out of 5 stars; Great)