KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (2016) review
written by: Marc Haines and Chris Butler
produced by: Travis Knight and Arianne Sutner
directed by: Travis Knight
rated: PG (for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril)
runtime: 101 min.
U.S. release date: August 19, 2016
Of the many animation studios releasing features throughout each year, Laika Entertainment is the studio that has my utmost respect. The Portland, Oregon-based studio, specializing in 3D stop-motion animation, has continuously delivering beautiful, inventive and kind of creepy stories that consistently entertain and impress me. All of their films have been great and now their fourth feature,”Kubo and the Two Strings”, directed by the company’s CEO Travis Knight, may just be their greatest yet. Like the studio’s previous films, “Coraline”, “Paranorman” and “The Boxtrolls”, here is a visually striking film that displays wonderful artistry in a story that follows a young protagonist on a unique journey that touches on themes such as tragedy, loss and destiny.
Young Kubo (Art Parkinson, “Game of Thrones”) is a one-eyed boy who resides with his Mother in a mountainside cave high above a village that overlooks a vast ocean in Ancient Japan. They live in solitude, in order to protect Kubo from the threat of his Mother’s evil twin Sisters (a chilling Rooney Mara) and their father, Raiden the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) they work for. When he’s not looking after his ailing Mother, the boy makes his way into town to tell tales to the townspeople with his magical guitar which can turn sheets of paper into animated origami figures. His Mother always told him he must remain in the light and return home before sundown or else he will be found by her family. One day after being swept up in the Obon Festival, which honors the souls of those who’ve passed on, Kubo is detected in the twilight by the Sisters and must be rescued by his Mother, who uses the rest of her magic to save him.
Kubo awakens in a snowy landscape, accompanied by a guardian Monkey (Charlize Theron), who used to be a wooden charm of his and the two embark on a mission to gather three key items of Kubo’s late father, the legendary warrior, Hanzo – The Armor Impenetrable, The Sword Unbreakable and The Helmet Invulnerable – that will help in defeating the Moon King. Along the way, they are joined by the man-beetle called, um, Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) who becomes a well-intended yet somewhat aloof ally to the pair. During their quest, the trio must overcome a series of challenges against insurmountable odds as Monkey and Beetle do their best to protect young Kubo.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” opens with narration from the titular character, “If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see, no matter how unusual it may seem. If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.” Kubo does not narrate the entire film – that’s about all I can remember him narrating, but it’s an opening that caught my attention in a way I can’t recall any other movie doing this year. Indeed, it made me sit up and lean in a little closer.
Although Kubo uses that line of dialogue later on, as he stands before a captive audience before weaving his musical tale, I couldn’t help but reflect on the impact that opening had on me and should have for audiences. Look around in a movie theater right before a movie is about to start – you’ll see fellow viewers anticipating a movie just like yourself – but there are also distracted minds, wandering eyes, talking mouths and (unfortunately) the glaring glow of smartphones. For a movie to open with a young boy’s voice forewarning, “If you must blink, do it now” is a unique (and, in some cases, necessary) call to attention. Read the rest of that intro again. We’re being asked to “Pay careful attention…”. Again, this draws us in and asks us to maintain an alertness – one this confident storyteller in the movie – and, for that matter, this movies – deserves.
For me, it was a reminder not to take for granted the exquisite artistry on display. Sure, it may be expected from a Laika, but knowing that shouldn’t prevent me from paying attention to everything I see. The opening lines accompany a stunning sequence on a violent sea, as Kubo’s mother escapes her family on a tiny boat with infant Kubo in tow. It calls our attention – as if it’s a continuation from a previous cliffhanger. We don’t need to know what’s happened with this woman and her baby to be invested, but because of the drama and suspense, we’re interested. We’re hooked.
Granted, much of the screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler (based on a story by Haimes and Shannon Tindle), is composed of classic “hero on a journey” mythology elements, wherein a young character sets out into the unknown on a mission to save or reunite with someone, joined by other characters along the way who befriend him/her, but that’s easy to accept since this story is told in such a meticulously creative way. Regardless of certain tropes and conventions present, what is most impacting is how the filmmakers are about what they are about. There is magic present and felt here, both in the story and what we see on the screen. It’s an absolute thrill and joy to go on this journey with Kubo, Monkey and Beetle as each character plays an integral part in the life of this young boy.
A large aspect of “Kubo” is about storytelling and the nature of storytelling. As a musical storyteller, Kubo admits he has trouble with ending his tales. When he stops his origami characters in mid-action during a climax, while they perform in front of the locals, his audience complains, asking that he continue. Like many youngsters, he finds ending his stories (his play) a challenge and would rather pick up the action on another day than end his story. As the movie unfolds, we’re reminded how stories change as they are passed on to others when we learn more (or less) about Kubo’s father and also how at some point, the story must evolve depending on the storyteller’s mood.
There are aspects of the overall story that are a little fuzzy, even when they’re explained – such as the motivations of the main antagonist, Fiennes’ Moon King – but, I didn’t care. So enraptured was I by the characters and their design as well as the excellent voice acting, that any qualms I had with story intricacies disappeared without much of a second thought. That happens when I’m watching stop-motion animation. It’s my favorite form of animation and I continue to be utterly flabbergasted with the process. That being said, I must say that the style and approach benefits from the fantasy and vice versa.
The voice acting in “Kubo” is a stand out element, probably moreso than any 0f the previous films from the studio. It’s not just because there are recognizable names here, it’s that the character design and the characterization is really fun and enjoyable. As the title character, Parkinson is a real treat here. His enthusiasm is off the charts, but the tenderness he gives Kubo is very sweet as well. Theron conveys a surprising amount of emotion, strength and vulnerability to Monkey – not just because she’s a monkey, but also because the welcome dimensions the writer gives her. It’s hard to believe that Theron and McConaughey have never done animated work before (not counting Theron’s narration work in 2009’s “Astro Boy”), but they are great here and even greater together. While McConaughey adds obvious bravado and levity, he’s cluelessness is fun and adds a disarming aspect to the harrowing situations the trio get themselves into. It’s hard to believe that Theron and McConaughey have never done animated work before (not counting Theron’s narration work in 2009’s “Astro Boy”), but they are great here and even greater together. Fiennes is what we expect from the evil villains he’s played in the past and he injects a threatening shadowy presence that looms throughout the film, yet Mara is the more unsettling double menace of the film. George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Brenda Vacarro (of all people) also lend their voices to townspeople that Kubo encounters.
Some will inevitably point out that there is a lack of Japanese talent in the cast, for a movie that takes place in Ancient Japan. I would’ve welcomed that, but at the same time I understand that it’s a big deal for Laika to be able to land such name actors and I’m certain an all-Japanese cast would make it a challenge on a marketing level. It’s unfortunately, but true. I’m not seeing white actors are needed in order for movies to get greenlit or draw an audience – I just think recognizable names help. That being said, I think people are going to be drawn to “Kubo and the Two Strings” because they appreciate animation, long for something different and find something intriguing about these characters.
As far as tone is concerned, “Kubo” is just as strange and dark as the other features in the Laika canon. The twin Sisters may be the scariest thing here with their taunting siren-like voice and Udo masks (I thought they were great though and they didn’t bother my 10-year-old daughter at all). This tone is what I appreciate about Laika. It’s kind of what they’re known and it makes me happy since their films serve as great gateways to something a little edgier, for kids that have outgrown all the poop, pee and fart jokes prevalent in too many animated features. Thankfully, you also won’t find any pop cultural references or songs in their film, making them all the more timeless.
Speaking of music, Oscar-winning Italian composer Dario Marianelli’s (“The Boxtrolls” and “Atonement”) work here is fantastic, incorporating classic Japanese stringed instruments and drums to offer an appropriate and distinctive sound that gives an authentic and transporting sounds to the film. Regina Spektor’s cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that plays during the entertaining end credits is delightful as well. As usual, Laika also gives you a glimpse into the impressive creative process during these end credits, so sit tight.
Kubo and the Two Strings” doesn’t rely heavily on action sequences, although they are choreographed amazingly here. It’s a more emotionally invested story than audiences may be used to – touching on bravery, sacrifice and forgiveness – more than it does battles or chase sequences, which is something I welcome. Like all the other Laika directors, Knight trusts his audience, regardless of age, to join this journey and take in the gorgeous animation and engaging story. With its masterful animation, strong imagination and striking character designs, this is easily one of my favorite animated features of the year – and another viewing may bump that up even further when it comes time to think back on the best of the year.