The heroes’s journey, as it’s traditionally defined, is a pretty standard thing. A young character must rise above the station he or she is born into, embarking on a grand quest during which they will not only achieve the impossible but also learn something about themselves. That last part is often the most interesting since it adds an additional set of stakes to the story, making it not just about whatever the goal of the quest is but about the character coming into their own, often finding that they’re meant to be a hero, have magical powers or are the true rulers of a nation.
In the new movie Kubo and the Two Strings the main character Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is very much on the hero’s journey. He’s living a quiet life in his small village, unaware that he’s part of a bigger magical mystery that spans generations. Setting out to find out more about his lineage and destiny, Kubo is helped by Monkey (Charlize Theron), Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) and others as he has to take on various adversaries. All that on his quest to find a magical suit of armor once worn by his father. Along the way Kubo will learn he too has the power to control the same magical powers his parents once had.
The first poster sets the scene for a movie that’s epic in scope. We see Kubo standing at the front of a ship that’s breaking through the sea as a massive wave forms to the left. Kubo, though, stands defiant with his sword raised and his instrument on his back, some sort of creature perched on it. It’s a striking image that doesn’t offer a lot about the plot but does tell you what the overall tone and feel of the movie will be.
A few character posters were released next that showed Kubo and others, with each one getting a background appropriate to where they are in the story. They’re cute and certainly show off the visual design of the film.
The final theatrical poster combines the three main characters to sell the action and adventure element of the story. Kubo is of course front and center, sword drawn and ready for action as he looks intensely at the camera. Behind him are Monkey and Beetle, looking equally ready for an adventure. Down below the title treatment the audience is promised “The quest begins,” so they’re being told that this is just the first of more than one potential adventure.
The teaser trailer opens out at see and invokes the “hero’s journey” that we’ll be following in the movie. We see Kubo then in a small raft coming up on a huge wave that he cuts down by playing his instrument with a glowing pick. After that it’s just a montage of clips that are meant to show off the other characters and specifically name-drop the actors who are providing their voices.
The first official trailer is a bit more about the story of the movie. We meet Kubo in the same storm we saw previously and are soon told his magic is getting stronger, though that comes with an increase in the danger he will face. It then takes us through some of the adventures he will face and the characters he will encounter.
So there’s not a lot more about the story here but it does show some more of the scale of the action and the trials Kubo will undergo. Also, I very much want that version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
One more trailer starts out with some exposition about the situation Kubo finds himself in. We get the backstory on how his mother sacrificed herself to keep him safe and that he’s now on a quest to reclaim his history and embrace the magic that runs through him.
As is the case with previous trailers, this one gives us plenty of story points without overtly spoiling anything while also focusing squarely on showing off the amazing animated visuals that are a major, if not primary, selling point.
A fourth and final trailer hits all the plot high points – magic, enemies, humor etc – inside of just a minute. Nothing new here, just one more appeal to some of the core story elements.
Online and Social
The movie’s official website is actually quite interesting and a bit of a departure from what you usually find online these days.
Presented as a series of cards, there’s a section called “Watch Trailer” that lets you do just that. There’s also one called “Play Games” that opens a new page where you can play five different casual online games, each dealing with some aspect of the story or Kubo’s powers. “Explore Map” opens a YouTube video that explores the different realms from the story, usually via a clip from the movie.
If you go over to the big card on the right, though, you can enter the rest of the site with a more traditional layout.
“Videos” has all the trailers, which are absolutely worth rewatching. After that is “Downloads” which is nicely stocked with most of the posters, some wallpapers to add to your computer screen and some avatars you can use on social networks if you so choose.
If you’re not clear on who all the characters are, visit “Characters and Creators,” which offers brief bios of the people in Kubo’s village, those that are helping him on his quest and those who are opposing him and looking to cut his journey short.
The “Gallery” is kind of amazing as it’s filled with what seems to be not stills from the finished movie but highly stylized concept art that shows off the look and feel of the movie. It’s great and much of what’s here is worthy of being framed.
In addition to the general “Partners” section that lists the companies who in some way are supporting the movie, “Kubo + Air Jordan XV” is listed separately here and on the front page and is where you can find out about limited edition sneakers created to capture the essence of the movie and its conflict. There’s all kinds of detail here on the look of the shoe and its packaging, the work that went into its design and more.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
There was a pretty big TV campaign, with a couple dozen TV spots created and run, each presenting a slightly different take on the movie while still remaining true to the overall idea. So some played up the adventure, some played up the magic, some emphasized the story of searching for yourself and so on. It all added up to presenting a well-rounded take on the story.
The movie did have a few promotional partners as well:
- Nike / Air Jordans, as detailed above
- The U.S. Forest Service and Ad Council created DiscoverTheForest.com, an informational site – supported with a few TV PSAs – encouraging families to get out into nature and spend some quality time with each other.
- Seasnax did something for the movie but it’s not clear what activities the maker of healthy seaweed-based snacks engaged in.
- Burger King also did something that’s unclear since it’s their Canadian site that’s linked on the movie’s page and there’s no information there.
- Langers fruit drink gave away a movie t-shirt when you bought four bottles of their product
Media and Publicity
There was a round of publicity resulting in stories like this one that went behind the scenes on the production of the movie’s effects and how the filmmakers created the look and feel by mixing technology.
Some of the figures from Paranorman and other Laika Studios productions were featured in a special exhibit at Universal Studios Hollywood. The movie’s look and feel was also the subject of plenty of stories like this one that dove into its mix of stop-motion and computer animation.
This summer has been inundated with bad reviews for movies that were, at best, questionable. But Laika Studios has a reputation for putting out quality material and so there’s a lot riding on this campaign turning out the audience and make it a success. That may be an unfair burden to put on the movie, but that’s the narrative that’s emerged, that a modest mixed-animation movie telling a story steeped in Japanese culture and iconography will save audiences from the drudgery of a summer where franchise launches and sequels have failed to ignite our imagination.
What the marketing campaign is selling is nothing that’s all that dissimilar from any movie put out by Pixar or another animation studio in…well…forever. It’s a twist on a story that’s been told time and time again for millennia, about a young person going on a quest of self-discovery. That comes through in the campaign but the focus, really, is on the visuals. The studio is obviously hoping it will turn people out by selling a movie that just doesn’t look like anything else in theaters. That’s the main hook here, but it remains to be seen if it’s enough to get people to an original story, not something that’s a remake or otherwise a revamp of existing IP.