Kubo and the Two Strings
2016, PG, 101 min. Directed by Travis Knight. Voices by Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Rooney Mara, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Aug. 19, 2016
With four features under its belt, beginning with the sublime Neil Gaiman adaptation Coraline in 2009, the Laika animation studio has distinguished itself as the ne plus ultra of stop-motion animation. And while augmented by a bit of CG magic, the studio prides itself on bringing its characters to life with that tedious, incremental process and endless passion that would make Ray Harryhausen's skeletal corpse smile in his grave. Their new entry, Kubo and the Two Strings, may suffer from a nebulous title, but it is gorgeous animation of the highest order, a small studio firing on all cylinders, and thanks to a nuanced story, it is one of the more rewarding films of the summer, nay the year.
First things first though, the narrative arc is straight out of Screenwriting 101: the hero's journey, a quest to complete, an enemy to be vanquished. But Kubo infuses these devices with an emotional grounding and a gorgeous canvas that overcome the tired formula at work here. Set in a world of ancient Japanese myth, the film tells the tale of Kubo, a young, one-eyed boy with a telekinetic gift for origami (via his shamisen riffs), who wows the local townsfolk in the market square with his epic stories of heroes and villains. He must return home to his mother before sunset, lest he become visible to the Moon King (Fiennes), who lusts after Kubo's other eye, and harbors a vendetta tied with family betrayal. A first-act tragedy propels Kubo on a quest for a set of magical armor to defeat the Moon King, with some help from sidekicks, naturally: a beetle samurai (McConaughey, as a goofily gallant insect samurai named Beetle), and a totem who comes to life in the form of Monkey (Theron, whose voice work exudes a soothing maternity). There are foes to vanquish, such as a skeleton monster, underwater eyeball creatures, and Kubo's two sinister aunts, known as the Sisters (both voiced by Mara), who would be supercreepy if they weren't so super sinisterly cool.
There may be too many story and tonal change-ups to take in for the younger ones, as a somber first act gives way to a broad-comedy road trip, which then culminates into a very busy latter third filled with melancholy that works pretty hard to wrap it all up, but Kubo reaches for the stars and plucks a good handful of them out of the ether. Visually inventive and offering up a complex view of family interaction, Kubo and the Two Strings is another feather in the cap for Laika, and a marvel to behold.