Stop-motion animation studio Laika seems poised to have another critical hit on their hands with this week’s new opener “Kubo and the Two Strings,” but the vividly imagined fantasy has picked up some criticism in regards its casting. The film is set in ancient Japan, yet it features a voice cast that is dominated by Caucasian actors, from Art Parkinson as the eponymous Kubo to Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey as two of his unlikely animal pals. Other cast members include Ralph Fiennes and Rooney Mara, with smaller parts filled by George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.
“I think people can take issue with any number of choices that we make,” Knight told the outlet. “I hope that even if people have disagreements with what we did, they can realize that the film has a sincere humanist perspective that is trying to honor the beautiful art of a great culture.”
The topic is apparently important to Knight, and he continued, “I fully believe that representation and inclusion matters. So when we were casting the film, it was important that most of our human characters are actually actors of Japanese ancestry. For other characters, the gods and the talking animals, that wasn’t the prime consideration.”
Knight did also point out some of the differences between casting a live-action film and an animated one, telling the outlet, “In a live action film, what an actor looks like is as important, if not more important, than what they sound like. Age, physical appearance, gender, racial or ethnic background – those can become character-defining qualities for an actor in a specific role…Our prime consideration in casting is the ability of the actor to capture the emotion with their voice.”
The director then referenced some of Laika’s other unexpected casting choices from previous works: “When you look back at our films, we’ve often cast actors in weird roles who are nothing like what they are as people. For instance, when we did ‘The Boxtrolls,’ as our female lead we have a girl from Georgia [Elle Fanning] who plays a hoity-toity British aristocrat. We have a man of Asian descent [Ben Kingsley] playing a white, social-climbing pest exterminator. We have African-American comedian from the Bronx [Tracy Morgan] playing a white British thug.”
The Laika head said he remains committed to diversity, in both storytelling and casting.
“What we’ve done all along is try to tell diverse stories,” he told The Wrap. “I think it’s a bigger issue. It’s telling more diverse stories with more diverse characters, and that’s what we’ve tried to do every step of the way. And our casting process is part of that. We’re basically colorblind in terms of how we cast our films, and I think you can see it when you look at the totality of our movies.”
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is in theaters today.