“Kubo and the Two Strings” is just another story of a brave one-eyed boy who teams up with a monkey and a beetle to fight off a pair of ghost-like spirits and his grandfather, who can shape-shift into a serpent-like dragon.
You know, typical kiddie fare.
Give originality points to Laika, the animation studio behind “Coraline,” “The Boxtrolls” and “ParaNorman,” whose offerings always veer left of bread-and-butter animated tales of the “Ice Age” and “Angry Birds” variety. If Pixar is the gold standard in animation, Laika is the cool alternative for the boutique crowd.
“Kubo” is bold and daring, telling a truly unique tale set in ancient Japan that is rich with the depth of a story passed down for generations. It recalls the work of Hayao Miyazaki and deals with themes involving family, reincarnation and the strength of the human will.
Those mature threads bring with them characters that might be too much for a 5-year-old. Kubo himself is a resonant hero, a young boy who goes on an exciting quest involving a coat of armor and a “sword unbreakable,” but some of the players he meets along the way — including a pair of witchy, Kabuki-masked sisters and the aforementioned dragon serpent — are downright terrifying, and could cause a few sleepless nights for young ones.
But everyone will appreciate the care and detail poured into director Travis Knight’s beautifully rendered vision, which in parts is like origami come to life, and Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey are exceptional as the monkey and the beetle, respectively.
“Pay attention,” Kubo warns at the film’s opening. From then on it’s difficult to look away.
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The opening scene in Kubo and the Two Strings – in which a woman faces off against a mounting wall of water in the roaring ocean – promises a beautiful film to come. And Travis Knight’s movie mostly delivers, with stop-motion animation delivering riveting shots of origami papers coming to life in the form of warriors and birds, and haunting imagery of witch-like sisters drifting across still waters.
The stunning imagery will come as no surprise to those familiar with the American stop-motion animation studio Laika, whose past films include Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, all of which earned Oscar nominations for best animated feature. But despite its breathtaking visuals and the public’s yearning for one groundbreaking film this summer after the long, warm months of mediocrity, Kubo and the Two Strings might not be the cinematic saviour of the season. Its flaws are just too hard to ignore.
The film places great emphasis on the theme of storytelling, with its protagonist Kubo telling tales through the origami paper he manipulates with magic, and others filling in his family’s history for him. Yet this overplayed motif begins to bog down the actual story. And despite this continuous theme, Knight and his screenwriters seem to forget about developing their own story. The characters feel underdeveloped, to the point where it’s sometimes difficult to remain invested in their triumphs and failures.
The film does have audiences suspending their disbelief for the majority of its running time, as they join Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) on a quest to find three items – a sword, armour and a helmet – in order to defeat his grandfather and two aunts, who have hunted him over the course of his life. Kubo’s accomplices, a monkey (Charlize Theron) and samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey), are also weaved into the plot. But there are moments where you come crashing back to reality – likely due to the fact that the movie attempts to accomplish so much in so little time. Or perhaps because some of the plot twists are just a bit too out there, such as the final showdown between Kubo and a giant glowworm.
First-time director Knight – who served as lead animator on Laika’s previous three films – does manage to artfully weave Japanese folklore elements into the plot, but having three white voice actors in the leads (Parkinson, Theron and McConaughey) might be viewed as diminishing this success. (That said, Asian actors, including George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, voice supporting characters.)
Still, the film does successfully balance humour, tragedy and horror. The comical, dopey beetle and the blunt, no-nonsense monkey make for a humorous and lovable pair. To contrast this, the film incorporates horror elements in scenes portraying Kubo’s grandfather, the Moon King (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) and his mother’s two witch-like sisters. They’re just creepy and foreboding enough to instill fear, but not so over the top that children can’t enjoy the film.
And the overall stunning nature of the work cannot be ignored. Audiences would do well to take Kubo’s advice from the movie’s beginning, “If you must blink, do it now,” as there is no telling what they might miss if they look away.
Nearly every kids movie purports to be about magic. Either the kind that appears in incantations and cauldrons, or the implied kind in which every whimsical story is said to entrance the young and cast a spell of loving tranquility upon them (see Disney, Walt); but very few of them take the subject as seriously as the singularly peculiar East/West hybrid Kubo and the Two Strings.
The film was made by American stop-motion company Laika Entertainment, with distribution in the United States from Focus Features, but the story itself — based on an original concept by screenwriter Marc Haimes and Shannon Tindle — is steeped in the Japanese tradition of shadow-magic, made popular by animated film auteur Hayao Miyazaki. The effect is oddly affecting, almost unnervingly so. In an age of retreads, sequels and focus-grouped kids movies that feel poured out of the same mold over and over, this film, about a little boy’s quest both for his late father and his own legacy, is very much its own entity.
The little boy is the titular Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a young village storyteller with a compelling manner (“If you must blink,” he tells us somberly in the film’s opening voice-over, “do it now” — the same intro he uses before each of his public presentations) and a leaf of magic origami paper whose fantastic creatures, samurais, and forests leap in the air and cavort to his command.
Kubo, who wears an eye patch for reasons we come to eventually discover, and his mother (Charlize Theron), a beautiful but sad recluse who ran away with her baby son across a dangerous sea in order to hide him on this small island off the coast of the mainland, live in a simple cave facing the ocean. When he’s not entrancing the village with his stories, or hanging out with Kameyo (Brenda Vaccaro), a kind, elderly woman who has befriended him, Kubo is taking care of his mother, who waves in and out of lucidity, sometimes telling him fantastical stories about his father, a great samurai warrior, but often getting lost in thought and never getting to the endings.
One early evening, Kubo stays out past sunset, breaking one of the many incontrovertible laws his mother has set forth for him, and is attacked by a pair of dark-caped, masked spirits (both voiced by Rooney Mara), floating over the sand, who claim to be his aunts. As he’s about to be taken in by their smoke-tendril magic, his mother suddenly appears with the boy’s magic shamisen (a three-stringed lute), and scatters everything into darkness.
Awakened by a hovering monkey in a raging blizzard, Kubo is bewildered but is led by the monkey — once a wooden talisman given to him by his mother — to a place of safety. Eventually the two figure out that Kubo’s only hope is to avoid his aunts, and his immortal grandfather, the fearsome Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), and track down his father’s magic armor and sword, scattered in secret places throughout the land. With the help of Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a former great samurai who served under Kubo’s father, but cursed with insectlike appendages, the crew embark on the quest together, even as Kubo’s malicious extended family members try to thwart them at every turn.
It is incredibly easy to sleepwalk through the creation of such fare, as animation studios from DreamWorks to Disney have shown time and again, creating easy-to-recognize character cutouts and standard dramatic arcs — along with a grating amount of topical humor — but first-time director Travis Knight, the head of Laika, believes in his material enough to give it, and his audience, proper respect.
The banter, especially between Monkey and Beetle, is genuinely funny (“One question, if I’m Beetle and you’re Monkey, why isn’t he ‘Boy’?), but more impressively, the emotional journey the three embark upon is honest and sincerely moving. Kubo is a sweet kid, but isn’t above getting piqued when he doesn’t get his way, and Monkey, who has an air of sadness to her even as she’s cracking jokes, becomes something of an audience touchstone, even as she’s first played mostly for laughs.
Emotional depth aside, the film is also gorgeous, with glowing evening light filtering off of the characters’ faces, and beautiful renderings of post-feudal Japan in its natural glory. There is something, too, about claymation — as evidenced in Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant Anomalisa from last year — that particularly reverberates. The exact details of facial expressions and gestures, often depicting complicated emotional responses, resonate in clay in a way that hearkens to its own kind of magic. In the characters’ faces, we recognize things in ourselves, and our knowledge of their highly complicated, manufactured nature makes the alchemy even more astonishing.
During the film’s post-credits sequence there’s a section shot in time lapse where we revisit one of the more significant action sequences, wherein our intrepid trio have to do battle with a giant skeleton in whose head is embedded the swords of countless other victims, but as the camera pulls back to show the sets, and lights, and green screens, with blurry crew members fiddling endlessly with each fastidious movement, you get a sense of just how technically impressive the feat of bringing to life this world actually is.
It’s a proper and fitting conclusion to a film dedicated to the harmonious magic already present in our lives, the connectedness of families, ancient ancestors and the way our sense of reality is warped by our all-too-human and primitive understanding of the enchanted world around us.