Kubo (Art Parkinson) lost his eye as an infant in a magical conflict, but his father, a great warrior was able to save him and his mother who were then forced into hiding. A decade later his mother is still traumatized by the event and is losing her memory. Kubo spends his days in a local village telling stories using his magical shamisen that brings origami to life. But when he stays out after sunset one night, evil spectres come to take his other eye. He escapes only through his mother’s intervention; and in order to protect himself against these enemies, embarks on a quest to find his father’s magical armour, guided by Monkey (Charlize Theron) his mother’s charm brought to life, Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) a samurai-turned-insect who served Kubo’s father, and his origami recreation of said father.
The thing I like best about this movie is probably how original it is. Though it hearkens back to classic samurai movies, and clearly to some degree takes inspiration from the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it is a wholly unique film. It’s heavily informed by Japanese culture and mythology, and interprets them creatively. Trials the characters come across, the structure of the world, and the character designs themselves are really played with in original ways. And the story though in some ways basic does throw in a few good twists. Admittedly some of them you can see coming, but those revelations are executed so deftly that it hardly matters. And the film is quite deep too, steeped in symbolism, emotion, and Japanese philosophy. The importance of memory is stressed, and it’s tied into a larger theme on storytelling which is actually quite poignant and feels like the movie reminding us to continue to tell new great stories, like the one it’s telling. On top of all that, Kubo isn’t afraid to be more than a little dark and scary. Laika excels at frightening imagery and here, the supernatural omens in particular are conveyed wonderfully creepily. Kubo really treats its audience maturely, it has faith kids can take scarier subject matter so long as it comes with a good story and message. Not a lot of animated films do this these days, at least not to this degree, and I have great respect for Kubo for that!
The cast does really well too. Parkinson’s Kubo is a fairly likable protagonist hitting a good middle-ground of being realistic enough to be identifiable and worth following on this journey, while also being alien enough as a kid in touch with this fantastical environment. He doesn’t know much about his mother and father and so the mystery of his personal past is unravelled to him at the same time as the audience. Theron is great as Monkey, a caring, protective guardian who can hold her own and often steals the scene. She and Beetle make for the film’s comic relief which is actually funny a lot of the time for such an epic story. As for McConaughey, though he seems the most miscast in this kind of a story, he surprisingly works well and is very enjoyable. The supporting cast is great too from the always terrific Ralph Fiennes to Rooney Mara and even George Takei. They breathe life into a story that already has plenty of it.
The animation is unbelievable! This is by far the best looking stop-motion movie I’ve ever seen. There’s a visual lustre to so much of this movie, its designs and energy feel ripped right from a Japanese tapestry. I’m a sucker for landscape shots in animation and there a number in this movie that are really glorious. The suspense and animation on the terrors Kubo confronts are suitably terrifying, the smoke the aforementioned spectres ride in on being particularly chilling, and the action scenes are magnetic. And knowing this film was made meticulously by hand keeps you even more lost in wonder at how awesome and stylized these fight sequences can be. Be sure to stick around for the end credits where not only will you get a beautiful melancholy rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, but you’ll also be treated to a glimpse of what went into the making of just one terrific effect.
A part of me can’t believe Kubo and the Two Strings is an American production. This kind of quality animation I’m used to from Miyazaki or even European films like Song of the Sea and The Little Prince. That it is American though certainly isn’t a complaint, and in fact gives me hope for North American animation. Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the best movies of the year, certainly the best animated film! See for yourself and get swept up in its exciting, spellbinding story!