“It’s the same dark world for children that I grew up with in the post-70s dreamscape of the 80s. Films that could throw you through the wringer of violence, darkness, and surreality … Films that taught children that the world was full of wonders both too mysterious and awesome to comprehend, but also too terrifying. This is old-school mythmaking. Think Labyrinth by way of The Dark Crystal as envisioned by Henry Selick and Rankin Bass. Then throw in some Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi.” When Rob Walker describes a new film with those words, I know something wonderful has been created.
Although its story and characters are in some ways familiar, Kubo and the Two Strings (by Laika Entertainment of Coraline and ParaNorman fame) will be known worldwide as a pinnacle of stop-motion animation, imaginative world-building, and atmospheric, powerful imagery. Whatever you might say about its recognizable plot elements, it is possibly the most gorgeous and immersive film of this year.
Voiced with passion by Art Parkinson, Kubo is an adventurous young boy from a small Japanese village, residing in a nearby cave with his mentally broken mother (Charlize Theron). He entertains the townsfolk by telling stories of his legendary and mysteriously lost father, Hanzo the samurai, all while playing melodies on a magical shamisen that causes pieces of paper to turn into animated origami figures and act out Kubo’s tale. Much to his displeasure, though, he never seems to be able to reach his dead father’s spirit during Obon and begins to wonder what truly happened to him.
His life is serene and simple. That is until evil spirits are summoned and Kubo is forced to flee the village, leaving his mother at the mercy of his two demonic aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara), who resemble pale witches and travel through the air in black clouds.
Far away from home, Kubo encounters a stout no-nonsense monkey who speaks in the voice of his mother. “Monkey” vows to guide him on his quest to find the armor of Hanzo, which he will need to protect himself and his kin from the evil of the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), a furious spectre and Kubo’s grandfather, said to be responsible for Hanzo’s death. Monkey and Kubo also befriend Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a cursed but joyful warrior trapped in an insect-like body, who supplies comic relief that mostly feels welcome rather than annoying.
I don’t think I need to talk about the moderately irksome choice of (yet again) chosing non-Asian actors to portray characters in an Asian setting. I’m sure you’ve heard quite enough now that the Ghost in the Shell trailer has been out for a few days. With that said, the actors still did well and complemented the character chemistry with skill. In particular, the three leads interacted and worked off of one another perfectly (their wildly differing personalities is what gives it life), and there are some likable side characters from Kubo’s village as well, voiced by the likes of George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Brenda Vaccaro.
And as I’ve already mentioned, the film’s aesthetic and visuals are nothing below first-rate. Most of it is stop-motion and some CGI has been used as well, albeit as an enhancement rather than “cheating”. It looks so stunning in fact, that it’s easy to forget none of its real. This is precisely the effect an animated film should have and Travis Knight (Laika’s lead animator who has never directed his own film until now) deserves all the kudos – at least that which doesn’t go to its writers (Christ Butler and Marc Haimes) and Dario Marianelli, whose gripping music doesn’t exactly hurt.
The film’s biggest disadvantage, at least to some viewers, will indeed be its occasionally easy-to-predict story and some of the twists therein. It’s too bad since the movie is otherwise so creative and smart. However, the film has been made with kids in mind, and if they are to see a story like this one for the first time, it might as well be in a movie that isn’t shy about scaring them, making them think, and taking them seriously as viewers.
What’s important is that Laika has persisted in its output of beautifully made family films and adventures of the sort that kids can go on without once being talked down to or assumed too stupid or squeamish. Kubo and the Two Strings has ensured that this animation company will remain as a beacon of light inside a murky mist of unoriginal Ice Age follow-ups, unrequested Pixar sequels, an Angry Birds adaptation, and that upcoming Dreamworks production about a talking baby in a business suit. Thank you once more, Laika.
Down below is the official trailer as well as my final rating. Its flaws, although minor, weren’t excusable enough for me to give it a perfect score but rest assured that it did come close. Besides, since when is 9/10 a shabby rating?