Kubo and the Two Strings (2016): Written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, directed by Travis Knight. Starring: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey, and Rooney Mara. Running Time: 102 minutes.
If you must blink, do it now. For if you look away for even a second, this review will fail, and it’s writer will surely die. Or at least be condemned to watching lesser animated fare like Sing or The Secret Life of Pets for the rest of eternity. *shudders*
This threat is not terribly dissimilar to the one facing our hero, Kubo (Art Parkinson), as he seeks to discover the legacy of his late father, the legendary samurai Hanzo. Possessing the ability to use his magical shamisen to manipulate objects like leaves and pieces of paper however he wishes, Kubo is at first wholly ignorant of why he and his mother live alone in a seaside cave, why he is strictly forbidden from leaving the cave at night, and why he only has one eye. He finds out in terrible fashion one night when he stays in the local village just a bit too long, and his mother’s twin sisters (both expertly voiced by Rooney Mara) descend from the moon to kill him and his mother and steal his remaining eye.
His mother uses the last of her magic powers (she appears to have once a powerful sorcerous, but grief over the loss of her husband slowly dimmed her strength over the years), to send Kubo away under the protection of a monkey talisman brought to life. Kubo and the monkey (Charlize Theron) are soon joined by an anthropomorphic beetle (Matthew McConaughey) claiming to have been trained by Hanzo himself. They set out to find the legendary three great treasures that offer Kubo’s only defense against the powerful magic of the sisters and their father, the Moon King.
It’s a perfect example of the classic Hero’s Journey we’ve seen a thousand times before, yet done so point-perfect and with such obvious vision that it rises above most of its competitors into something unique and special. This movie was in production for almost a decade, and it shows, as its lavish and detailed visual design left me gaping in every other scene. Everything from the way hair and clothing moves to how waves rise and fall looks so realistic you have to keep reminding yourself you’re watching clay figures that were photographed a shot at a time.
This is so much more than a lights show though. The voice acting breathes beautifully animated life into the characters, and when you least expect it to, the movie uses its story to turn to themes of forgiveness, love, and family, and the importance of building community with those around you. There are story quibbles to be had- later reveals about the background of Monkey and Beetle raise more questions than they answer- but these are minor distractions from what is otherwise one of the best movies, animated or otherwise, to come out this year.
I still find it supremely disappointing that Laika has never had quite the box-office success (nor the awards success) that the other major animations studios in America have had, because they have firmly established themselves as the new Pixar of the US animation scene, created brilliant, original, and cutting-edge works that push the boundaries of stop-motion animation much like how Pixar has expanded the possibilities of computer animation. By all rights this and ParaNorman both deserved much better success than they had (this one just barely broke even at the box office).
That said, Kubo is still such a masterful piece of work, I am confident it will still find its audience and will remain and enduring work for years to come. Like its score and the magical, reality-altering music of Kubo himself, it rises and soars on its own vision to heights most movies can only dream of reaching.