A film review by Craig J. Koban August 27, 2016

RANK:  #9


2016, PG, 101 mins.


Art Parkinson as Kubo (voice)  /  Brenda Vaccaro as Kameyo (voice)  /  Rooney Mara as Sisters (voice)  /  George Takei as Hosato (voice)  /  Ralph Fiennes as Raiden the Moon King (voice)  /  Charlize Theron as Monkey (voice)  /  Matthew McConaughey as Beetle (voice)  /  Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa as Akihiro (voice)

Directed by Travis Knight  /  Written by Chris Butler and Marc Haimes


KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is a new 3D stop motion animated film of startling beauty.  Produced by the Oregon-based animation house Laika (they preciously made PARANORMAN, THE BOXTROLLS and CORALINE) and featuring the directorial debut of Travis Knight, the film is not only a piece of exquisite and painstakingly multidimensional art come lovingly to life, but it’s also enchantingly steeped in ancient Japanese culture and sweeping mythical motifs.  

This is a highly atypical animated film that’s not overtly trying to be cute and cuddly with the underlining material.  KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS respects the inherent power of folktales and mature storytelling that taps into the deepest recesses of our collective imaginations to inspire awe and wonder.  Its narrative is arguably as intricate and complex as the animation that’s utilized to tell it.  That’s what ultimately makes the film a work of timeless grace. 

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is positively breathtaking right out of the gate, set in ancient Japan and featuring a stunningly tour de force opening sequence that features a mother on a raft that stops a tidal wave the size of a sky scrapper with the magical stroke of her shamisen (three string guitar).  The mother in question has a young son named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), whom she has tried to raise in relative solitude away from a magical, yet hostile kingdom (Kubo has only one eye because his other one was stolen by his evil grandfather).  Kubo, much like his mother, has a few nifty tricks up his sleeve with his own shamisen, as he spends his days bringing origami puppets to life via his stringing of it, all to the great enthusiasm of the breathlessly impressed onlookers.  Moments like this – as seemingly small as they are – speak incalculable volumes as to how gloriously inventive Knight and his animators are with their handcrafted and tactile imagery.  It’s as sumptuous of a moment from any animated film of recent memory. 



Kubo’s family past comes to rear its ugly head as his Mother’s despotic twin sisters (Rooney Mara) reveal themselves and wish to posses the boy (unlike so many countless other previous animated films, this one has genuinely terrifying villains with their frozen kabuki masks and the creepy manner that they float effortlessly above the ground).  Realizing the severity of the situation, Mother forces Kubo to go on the run and into hiding, imploring him to seek out several pieces of magically charmed armor that will protect him and make him powerful.  As he begins his quest he’s befriended along the way by a monkey named…Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a half-man, half-beetle samurai warrior named…Beetle (Matthew McConaughey).  They vow to help and defend Kubo on his epic quest, which is frequently punctuated by the dangers of his relentless ghost-like aunts as well as a new threat in the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) that too wants to rob the boy of his innocence.  

Not only does KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS have definitive echoes of films like THE WIZARD OF OZ (another film featuring a young character sent on a journey with a series of magical beasts accompanying her), but it also joyously sends out nods to the stories carved out by iconic filmmakers like Kurosawa, Miyazaki, Lucas and Spielberg in multiple respects.  Like STAR WARS before it, KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is a sprawling odyssey of a boy coming to grips with his rather problematic relationships with key family members and how those ties ultimately frame and shape who he becomes.  The film keeps us guessing as to the particulars of Kubo’s mother’s past and her fracturing off from her sisters, not to mention that it teases us here and there regarding Kubo’s enigmatic samurai father and grandfather.  The film is thanklessly constructed and plotted and, in its own unique way, is kind of everything that Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks films aren’t.  KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS doesn’t try to duplicate the pristine computer animated artistry of the films from those studios.  Instead, it forges its own innovative path and absconds away from mimicking the competition.  That, in this day an age, is rare. 

Beyond its absorbing storytelling, the film is an unqualified triumph as not only a stop motion animated film, but as an animated film…period.  Yes, Laika does amalgamate both computer-generated backgrounds with their stop motion animated puppets, but they coalesce so smoothly and rarely draw needless attention away from the other.  I’ve always appreciated the lavishly immersive and palpable aura of stop motion animation, even over the most finely detailed works of CG animation.  This mostly, I guess, has to do with the fact that Kubo and the rich menagerie of colorful characters that surround him are…real.  Well, real in the sense that they’re actual physical objects that have been manipulated by animators to create the sensation of movement and action.  That’s a vibe that not even the most expensive CG animated films can muster in the same capacity.  KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS manages to have a stark simplicity with its character designs, but the fluidity of their movement and all of the miraculously subtle nuances that are imparted on them are utterly astonishing.  This film hardly requires 3D of any kind…because it already feels 3D to the naked eye. 

The art direction that surrounds Kubo and company is equally mesmerizing in the manner that the film captures and evokes ancient Japanese culture, somehow making it all feel authentically textured, yet ethereal and otherworldly at the same time.  The lovely voice performances from most of the key cast further allows for our emotional buy-in.  Art Parkinson has an amiable spunk and headstrong conviction as the titular character and thankfully never allows Kubo to come off as just another in a long line-up of young protagonists naively in over their heads.  He’s flanked by equally solid voice acting turns by Charlize Theron in a tricky role as Monkey, imbuing the role with a sage-like wisdom, authority and sense of gravitas…at least as much as a monkey can elicit.  McConaughey brings some spirited chuckles as the most unusual, multi-limbed samurai ever committed to celluloid.  Beetle is not, though, a one-note gag generating machine in the film, which is so often the case with so many other banal animated efforts.  He serves a specific purpose in the overall narrative arc, especially in the manner that he's intimately connected with Kubo’s own mission to find answers to his past. 

It could easily be argued that KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS runs a bit long and runs out of steam with its third act revelations, but by that point in the film I hardly cared.  The film is so unendingly ambitious, thoughtfully scripted and acted, and absorbingly gorgeous to drink in and engage with that most nitpicky criticisms kind of go out the door.  I admired the way Knight and his team steadfastly stuck to their creative guns: KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is a bravely melancholic fable that’s not afraid to tap into childhood trauma (when characters tragically die here…they stay dead and their demise has weight and consequence).  It’s a highly rare breed of animated film that’s not lazily designed to sell toys for Happy Meals; it strives to be about something and something meaningful that will resonate with viewers regardless of age or culture.  KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is an undeniable masterstroke effort for the stop motion animated genre, but beneath all of its sophisticated and scrupulously envisioned sights lurks a soulful fable about family love, loss, and willing up the courage to move on after loss.  When an animated film – or any film, for that matter – can so thoroughly stimulate and astound your senses while touching your heart…then you really know that you’ve been in the presence of real movie magic.  


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