Kubo’s Box Office Performance Hides Bigger Troubles – Animation Scoop

Kubo’s Box Office Performance Hides Bigger Troubles

Coming from a studio with an established track record in making uniquely crafted stop-motion films, and with a story this is much more interesting than most of the other summer fare, Kubo and the Two Strings ought to be a home run of a film. Its failure to become a smash hit however hides bigger troubles with audiences in general.

Laika’s previous films were always popular additions to the annual box office in a sea of CGI films and sequels. Kubo is their most ambitious to date in both a technical and storywise sense and despite the associated risk, critics and audiences alike who saw it, tend to agree that it’s one of the year’s best.

So why have audiences in general failed to show up?


There is nothing inherently wrong with Laika’s release strategy despite a noticeable lack of merchandise or marketing tie-ins (Burger King Kid’s Meal toys excepted). The film itself is basically sound, and it’s target audience is barely back in school yet. Rather, Kubo’s uniqueness may be its undoing. Aside from being stop-motion in composition and having a more mystical style of storytelling, the film’s attempts to stand out may not be what audiences are actually looking for.

We hear about how audiences want something new and unique all the time, but the reality is that they almost never want something truly new and truly unique. Such a film is a bridge too far. They want something that’s either slightly new, or evolutionary unique. Toy Story’s greatness originally stemmed from its technological advancements, but its longevity is the result of its style of storytelling. However, while such storytelling was new to animation, it had been around in live-action for decades. The actual structure enabled audiences to roll with it because it was familiar to them.

In a year awash with sequels in just about every genre of film, it is immensely frustrating that audiences can simultaneously demand more original content while continuing to reward sequels with their hard-earned money. The trend is likely to continue as studios seek to minimize their risk as much as possible. The notion that audiences become programmed to only consider tentpoles and sequels is not as bizarre as you might suppose.

Without mammoth advertising budgets, synergistic tie-ins, related franchises and universes, independent animated films in particular are susceptible to being crowded out of the marketplace. Modern media is a shout-fest and whoever shouts the loudest gets the attention. The old adage that great art will always succeed is not universally true. Art is being forced to compete on a more uneven playing field than it already was. Kubo’s audiences didn’t show up because they either didn’t know about it, or, because they already did. The frightening aspect to all of this is that Laika’s niche appeal and smaller budgets may no longer be enough to sustain its films. Kubo’s performance illustrates that word of mouth cannot be relied upon to prop a film up.

Despite the dramatic fall in production costs, and the availability or alternative distribution platforms like Netflix, it is at the box office where the vast majority of large-budget films recoup their costs. The failure of Kubo to do so with a unique visual style and tale ought to be a warning for anyone who believes that audiences are willing to consider new ideas.

Charles Kenny

Charles Kenny

Being tall, Irish and a civil engineer by trade, Charles stands out in the animation crowd, hence his position as the Animation Anomaly.
Charles Kenny
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  • MegaChaosGelee

    I generally agree, this sucks. When a movie like Transformers: Age of Extinction can make more than a billion at the box office, you know something is very wrong with today’s audiences. They rather want to be lulled and the majority doesn’t appreciate great art anymore – if they ever actually did. It’s just sad, maybe LAIKA finds a way to keep costs even a little lower than now.

    However, I wanted to add that I don’t think Toy Story’s way of storytelling was anything new or groundbreaking. Inventive, maybe. But we’ve seen such things many times before in animation. It was really the technical marvel that stood out and broke new ground.

  • Orrin Scott

    Three possible explanations:

    One.) This is what happens when a society has mined animation for its child-friendly money-making capabilities for, emphasis here, generations. Audiences need to be re-exposed to animation that isn’t an adult comedy or children’s playthings and there are not a lot of outlets currently that are doing that. Anime is still niche. We’re getting there, the kids today who are watching things like Korra, Gravity Falls, and Steven Universe will have high expectations come adulthood, so there’s a market, if not already bigger than expected, about to become a thing in the decade.

    Two.) I cannot speak too greatly here, for I have not seen the film, but the greatest exposure to the film, as someone who has their nose to the ground for animation, only saw it advertised twice in its lead-up; a launch trailer from a while back and a video on Facebook highlighting the 18/19 foot puppet. Maybe subliminally ads on websites, but I couldn’t tell you the last ad I actually read was. Hard sell, maybe concerning budget, but who knows what could have happened if they had booked one night at the Late Show showing off that huge puppet?

    Three.) I love Laika with all my heart. But it’s a terrible name for a film. I can never remember it. Again, speaking out of my booty here, still haven’t had the opportunity, and plan on it, but it’s a hard name to get excited for without knowing what else Laika has presented. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

  • guineaPigGhostWoah

    It has to do with ticket prices. The reality is people do want unique stuff all the time, but the cost to find that stuff in certain areas has skyrocketed. I’d be glad to go see both niche movies and big-budget sequels, but with the higher cost of tickets, not to mention snack and gas money, maybe including the cost of lunch/dinner hanging out with friends for a day, it adds up. For others it could be a completely different ballgame. They might be able to watch only a few movies per year.

    On the opposite end, take Netflix for example. People talk about shows on that platform all the time, even the stranger things. The cost and time to watch something on there is minimal. You can eat your own snacks and don’t have to drive. Even if the film was bad, you don’t lose as much of your time and money.

  • JamScoBal

    I would like to say that it hasn’t reached most countries yet. Most of its current box office is local. We probably won’t know if it has succeeded or not until October. Though the box office here is low. I did find it strange when it came out that there were not as many open spots in the cinema I went to to watch it as there were for others. Could have it been sabotaged somehow?

  • Nick

    Important to note that the previews seemed to have a bit of a thematic problems. Couldn’t tell if it was just another eye-rolling kids cartoon or a unique film experience.

  • If the original creator had still been on it, we’d have seen it. Just getting sick of the whole “let’s-kick-the-chick-off-the-flick” thing that seems to be prevalent in animation, and I’m not giving my money to any film that does it.

  • Max W

    The original original creator/director was a male.

  • Steven Ortiz

    I could not agree more strongly. I’ve worked for a few large studios and the people there do not seem to understand that the general public does not have much expendable income. The public has to pick and choose carefully where it spends its money and it is far easier to pick a brand, such as Marvel, than to risk money on an unknown.

  • EarthExile

    Are you talking about Shannon Tindle, who wrote the story? Because that’s a man. So are the director and the screenwriters.

    Sounds like you don’t know what you’re talking about and you’re looking to get triggered. Maybe you should be less sexist and go watch a good movie.

  • Thomas Davis

    hahah fail – no need to get triggered by this hahah

  • Tartutic

    Um, Shannon Tindle is a guy. Nice try, but get off your soapbox and enjoy a good movie instead.

  • Tartutic

    Finding Dory is the highest grossing animated movie ever. People didn’t mind ticket prices then.

  • jonhanson

    Perfect example of feels over facts.

  • GmailIsDown

    I agree. The previews didn’t make me want to see this movie. It is after reading a series of reviews, both from critics and audience, that I decided to see it. I made a good decision.

  • Brian O’Connell

    Blame the advent of the megaplex. In lack of a better term, they operate at 100% overhead, are generally wastes of real estate, and try to subsidize the physical building with elevated ticket prices and overpriced snacks. With the popularity of home theater systems and a lack of rude theater patrons to ruin the experience, waiting those few months for the movie to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray is far more economical.

    And the popcorn is 1/100th the cost.

  • Jeremy

    Even if Shannon Tindle weren’t a GUY, I’m a little unclear on what exactly the evidence is that he was kicked off the project. In fact, he has a Tumblr blog where he posts both his original designs and the final ones used in the film, and he seems quite proud of the final product (which he at least appears to have remained involved in).

  • MegaChaosGelee

    But with LAIKA, you _always_ get “unique film experiences” 😀 Sure, the general audience might not know enough about this stuff. But by now, I trust this little studio blindly. Love what they do. Even Boxtrolls, which wasn’t as good as Coraline or ParaNorman, at least had a fascinating visual style.

    I can’t speak on behalf of everyone else, but personally, I knew from the first teaser of Kubo, even from the first poster, that I’d definitely want to go see this movie! Extremely relevant to my interests :3

  • Nick

    I think that’s exactly the problem that is being pointed out here. Most Americans don’t watch teasers of movies they haven’t heard of. And the trailers that the general audiences saw were a mix of cool and unique art and then eye-roll gags. So, I don’t blame the American moviegoer… too much. If the marketing focused on what Kubo was at heart it could have changed everything.

  • Chel Traynor

    Kubo isn’t doing well because it was just an okay movie. The visuals were stunning, and a lot of love was clearly put it into it, but good visuals and good intentions do not make a good movie if they are not working in tandem with a good story. And it was not a good story. It was just okay. I’m a huge fan of animation, I’m a huge fan of Coraline, I’m a huge fan of anyone trying to break free from the industry’s horrendous status quo, and I *still* left the theater unsatisfied. And if someone who was actively rooting for the movie to succeed didn’t like it, it’s not hard to imagine a more casual moviegoer choosing to pass.

    Much like the similarly under-performing HTTYD 2, I felt like there were missed opportunities in the plot. They hardly did anything with the origami version of his father. Why couldn’t he have been a spy for the grandfather, trying to lead them into danger? Beetle was already the stand-in for the dad, did we honestly need two allegorical representations of him? Not only that, but we get introduced to the main villain way too late in the movie, they spend two minutes foreshadowing a fire-breathing chicken that never comes into play later on, and- perhaps the biggest problem- the message at the end doesn’t jive with the rest of the film. The grandfather becomes a good guy because he’s a blank slate and the village tells him he’s a good guy. That leads me to believe Laika’s intended message is that we become the stories people tell about us. It’s fascinating. It’s smart. It’s also barely touched upon in the movie. The narrative Kubo’s mother feeds him about his father and grandfather has no untruths to it; Kubo’s parents are no less heroic than they are in the stories he recounts to the villagers. So what, then, does the message conveyed by the grandfather’s redemption have to do with the rest of the plot? Ultimately I walked away from the movie unsure of just what exactly it was trying to say. Which- considering it’s about a storyteller- is not a good thing.

    I know this stuff sounds like the kind of nitpicking the average moviegoer doesn’t care about, but honestly I think on some level people pick up on these things. Disney was successful because he knew that, and prioritized refining the story to make it as appealing as possible; Miyazaki is successful because he knows it but doesn’t give a shit about it, and just lets the story flow out of his mind. Laika struggles because it gets caught in the uncomfortable middle area between the two: it tells stories that are too conventional to feel like a singular artistic vision, but too unstructured to compete with the manicured emotional beats of a big-budget Pixar film.

  • Jesus Kristo Maus

    Kubo was a really good film.

  • “The old adage that great art will always succeed is not universally true.”

    Sometimes it takes a little longer for people to recognize great art – great art can’t always be measured by a film’s box office success. In the long run “Kubo’s” success may be – no, will be – in that people will remember and treasure it, while other animated films that raked in a ton of $$$ the first time around will wind up in the $3.99 bargain bin at Target.

  • Lindy K

    I think the biggest hurdle is the name.

  • Djimd

    It’s a wonderful movie for adults. But it’s a seriously dark film with a clearly clinically depressed mother and a kid keeping her afloat, and some ugly family dynamics. My kids didn’t enjoy it at all.

    It’s really, really, dark in a realistic way. Just too much for most kids who didn’t grow up with ugly family dynamics and a depressed mother.

  • Djimd

    Sorry, but it’s way too dark for most kids. And adults aren’t gonna line up for it. It’s a beautiful little movie, but that doesn’t mean it is one that 30 million people want to see.

  • albert

    I had high expectations for the film, and was deeply disappointed in the result.

    KUBO is an ambitious failure for several reasons. These are all the more annoying because its such a beautifully crafted film. The work that went into it is just amazing and the sets, puppets and lighting are masterful. So why does it not work??

    First gripe: The magic the film might have had was drowned in tons of half-wit unnecessary dialogue. Why do all these characters talk,talk,talk? I pity those poor animators who had to wade thru all this bla bla. The Beetle character annoyed me no end.

    Second gripe: The script is boring, convoluted and shock full of the old tired clichés. The buddy movie all over. Little boy goes on a quest, finds friends in unlikely places, and so on. YAWN. Add the twist that his buddies are really his parents, and you get into a real mess.

    Third gripe-This is the most important one: Why did the makers over-polish the stop motion medium to the point where it looks like CGI?? No one but an expert would suspect that this was a hand animated film. The cat bites it’s tail here.

    EVERYTHING moves. The hair, the plants, everything. It hits you over the head and becomes distracting and boring in the long run. The faces move all the time, a little more in the way of stylization and artistic restraint would have been needed. The best characters are the two sisters who wear masks without movement. They work!

    Look at the old Czech Jiri Trnka movies. How much expression did he achieve without any movement in the face? He also said: If you want to film a field with moving blades of grass, go out and film the real thing, don’t animate it. What’s the point of moving every hair ?

    Fourth Gripe: why publish all the making ofs and behind the scenes stuff even before the film comes out? The internet was crawling with it. Did the makers perhaps feel a need to emphasize that it was NOT CGI?

    Fifth gripe: What was the target audience? The film is too adult for kids, too childish for adults. The filmmakers did not have the courage or the clout to market this as a movie for an adult audience..stopmotion is just for kids, huh? As a puppeteer with more than 40 years in the business I know this kind of pigeonholing only too well.

    Last Gripe: The title really is no good …here in Germany it was marketed as Kubo the brave hearted Samurai…No wonder I was alone in the cinema.

    Albert Maly-Motta

  • John

    She had dementia. Memory loss. It’s one of the themes of the story. The importance of memory in order to know who you are and tell your story.

  • Djimd

    Yeah I didn’t mention the dementia too, but for me the emotional hammer of her depression was so sad it overwhelmed everything else. Kid trying to get his mom who is bordering on catatonia due to depression was a horrific image.

    You’re right, it makes sense that it’s dementia being emphasized more than the depression, since bunch of others on the story have memory loss, scary grandpa is demented at the end, and remembers nothing either, and the story is about telling stories. Plus the little mantra he uses is about paying attention, and the Dire consequences of forgetting even one detail resulting in the death of our hero.

    I feel the movie is deep and brilliant on paper, but it just isn’t as well executed as it could be to be great or a masterpiece. It’s too plodding throughout. Needs better dialog, better pacing, tighter, better told, main story.

    I really liked it, but even with rewatching she, it’s not getting stronger, actually the flaws are more obvious, and parts are dull and go on too long.

  • John

    I didn’t even get the vibe that she was depressed at all. She laughed, played, and showed emotional care for Kubo in the moments when she remembered who she was. She worried and fought for Kubo’s well being… actually for the entire movie when you factor in the fact that she is (spoiler alert) Monkey.

    Thanks for that point about the mantra about paying attention. That adds another dimension to the movie, and that’s what I love about it. The more I think about it, and watch it, the better it seems to me. Kubo’s parents died, but he still had their memories and that helped him understand who was.

    I can see were your coming from. Maybe the moments that were too long were scenic moments that were meant for you to appreciate how visually beautiful the movie is. I actually enjoyed the humor in the movie a lot. I’m not alone, this movie is critically acclaimed. That’s the reason I wanted to see it. But, to each his own. There’s a lot of critically acclaimed movies I dislike.

  • Djimd

    I don’t dislike. I enjoyed it and the analysis of it gets more enjoyable each time. The subtext is great. It’s the text that’s not brilliant for me.

    That actual little speech about paying attention for example. It’s just awkwardly worded and could have been more succinct and memorable. It’s just… clumsy. It’s spoken like it’s something he polished for his little busking show, but it sounds like it needs to be worked a little more.

    The humor and interaction are OK, but I thought Charlize’s voice work wasn’t as good as it could be, and she’s such an important character. I felt the action direction was just a bit unimaginative, especially in light of how freaking gorgeous the actual models and sets were.

    The old lady talking to Kubo was just inauthentic and generic. I know what they were going for, including the details like the little advice re: the chicken, but they didn’t get it right. I know they were trying to be cute with the coins and the lint, but something didn’t quite work.

    Either the facial expressions or the voice work just didn’t quite work as well as it should have. Same goes for random crowd guys who talked. The voice work or something is clumsy, so I lose the immersion.

    THe only emotions that ever played truly genuine were sadness and fear: with mom’s dead eyed stares and Kubo’s general Demeanor most of the time. Kubo playfully clowning with the slurping soup for example… There was nothing that actually worked there. I didn’t BELIEVE in it.

    The models were sheer genius… but how the fights (timing, angles, moves) were directed and the menace of the sisters would only occasionally achieve their full potential.

    Even mom dragging herself across beach to baby didn’t quite work perfectly.

    I felt whoever directed it lacked some skills and some of the model movement fell short.

    But wonderful themes, drop dead gorgeous animation, some great imagery, and the sad reality bits really worked for me, even if most of the other human emotional bits were more symbolically achieved rather than heartfelt. Its a film I admire more than love. I wish a more capable director had done this. The ideas were top notch, as was the model building.

    That’s why I give it a 7.5.

  • John

    That’s fair. I actually agree with you on a lot of that. I guess it just didn’t bother me as much.

  • Djimd

    Well I’ve rewatched it and one thing that repeatedly falls flat is the attempts at humor. Timing is off, they’re trying to hard at times, -mad they’re just not talented with humor.

    I really do think that mom is depressed as much as she is demented. They often go together and her face is just SOOOO depressed it hurts to look at her.

  • John

    I thought the old lady was adorable, with Kubo. With other characters (the whole, overbearing romantic advances thing) I thought wasn’t effective. But, I laughed out loud at the lint joke. The chicken thing fell flat, but that one villagers euphoric reaction to the violence and blood made me laugh out loud. While the villager who became ill at the blood seemed forced.

    It continues like that, for me, through out the film. The humor is a hit or a miss, but, I kind of took it as charming if not funny, because there is often a reason for what they are doing. Even if it doesn’t hit me, I guess I can see what they are doing and it impresses me. And most of the jokes hit me. The only two I could honestly do with out was the Chicken, even though I understood the Old Lady was recommending silly humor to literally lighten the story in a sort of metaphorical way, Kubo even thought the Chicken was silly. Then there was the Beetle trying to get up for like 20 seconds, which I just spent that time admiring how the animators aped and exaggerated natural rocking physics.

    But, the parts that really drive the story. The sad parts and the comforting parts. Those were executed fantastically and that was the meat of the movie.

    That’s just my opinion though.

  • TheFistCannon

    I wish I could have seen it, but in the Netherlands it was only shown in cinemas for a very short time and during working hours. Compare that to the amount of time a Disney/Pixar movie stays in the cinema or is shown per day and it’s no wonder why it would earn less. Sigh, at least it will be released on Blu Ray, can’t wait!

  • Return of the Mack

    My kid’s attention span made it to the festival where she immediately said, daddy its scare-wee. She’s 3. She saw The Book of Life when she was just over 1, and had A jolly old time. I thought the first scene with the sisters was a little scare-wee, too. The whole film felt like a weird, animated Life of Pi without a real emotional connection to any of the characters, cause I was too busy trying to figure out what kind of movie I was watching.

  • Kubo did poorly because it was a bad movie. I do not understand what’s up with the ecstatic critic reviews. The film had major issues.

  • Whatever Kubo was, it wasn’t great art. Too many things wrong with the narrative. The dialogue was painful. “You are my quest?” Who says that.

  • And sadly, it was neither

  • Nicole Cass

    A samurai trying to find the pieces of legendary armor, and then, in the middle of that quest, realized that love was his quest….The line makes perfect sense.

  • Nicole Cass

    People go to the movies for escape, that’s why Transformers does so well. It’s a simple, but fun story with a happy ending. Most people, after a long day at work, doesn’t want to be reminded of their dead parents or talk about death to their kids.