Kubo and the Two Strings
For those who know of, and love, Laika Entertainment’s past cinematic releases, Boxtrolls, Paranorman, and Coraline, the news that Kubo and the Two Strings was coming elicited a feeling similar to a new Pixar release. They have a very distinct style and the use of stop-motion in an age of modern CGI is seen as anachronistic by some and a beautiful continuation of a classic art by others. With my colours as a firm fan of Laika’s work pinned to the mast, I headed out to the cinema with a sense of palpable excitement and expectation that any film would find very hard to match.
With this in mind, I sat down and the lights dimmed, and as the film opened, for the next 101 minutes I was blown away. I have rarely seen a movie with as much beauty, subtly, and storytelling flair as Kubo and the Two Strings. The creative team of director Travis Knight (Boxtrolls, Paranorman, and Coraline), and screenwriters/story Marc Haimes, Chis Butler, and Shannon Tindle, have crafted something really special here, and up on the screen we’re starting to see the development evident in Laika’s back catalogue starting to bear not just some fruit, but an orchard of tastiness. The Japanese setting of the movie can’t help but bring some very favourable comparisons with Studio Ghibli’s works, and with the uncertain future of that rightly revered institution, it is heart-warming to see another company take hold of the torch and run with it.
The story follows our hero Kubo, voiced excellently by Game of Thrones own Art Parkinson, who brings a real feeling of growth and innocence to the part. Kubo has to look after his mother, voiced with warmth and depth by Charlize Theron (The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Mad Max: Fury Road), and to achieve this he is a storyteller, weaving tales in the village square with his shamisen. As his music plays, paper origami characters magically come to life and act out the tales of heroes, villians and monsters to the delight of both the villagers and cinema-goers. Unfortunately these tales have no end, as Kubo must return to his mother in their sea-cave before nightfall, where she comes out of her stupor every night to tell him stories of his father as they await another day.
What Kubo does not know is that his stories are real, and when he stays out in the moonlight the legacy of his family catches up with him and he is propelled into a quest with a monkey and a beetle-samurai to retrieve his father’s armour, the only thing that can protect him for the evil that stalks him. The interplay between the stern monkey, the clueless but brave beetle, and Kubo as he finds out the truth of his past is a joy, and the world they travel through is breath-taking. As with past Laika works, I have no doubt that the attention to detail and the touches in the backgrounds will reward multiple viewings. The set-pieces as our band of heroes find the three pieces of the armour are exciting, well directed, and bring scale and awe to the story.
Laika is known for bringing some fairly intense horror elements to their films, and Kubo and the Two Strings is no different. Some of the monsters that our heroes must battle are genuinely unsettling, with a very special mention to the Sisters, whom are both voiced by Rhona Mitra (Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, Shooter). These two soft spoken, mask wearing sorceresses float about the screen like a living nightmare, and may actually cause some unsettled nights for parents, never mind their kids.
As we move into the final act, Kubo is confronted by his legacy, and must choose his path. The emotional weight after all the emotional investment the creative team have managed to get the audience to imbue the tale with has you barely wanting to blink for fear that you might miss even a single frame of the magical tale. As a result the film takes on a life of its own, tugging your hear-strings and feasting your eyes, and when the strains of Regina Spektor’s version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps kicks in over the closing credits, the overwhelming feeling is that you just want to stay where you are and watch it all again.
So, is it this a flawless movie? Well if I am nit-picking, and it is extreme nit-picking at this point, the second-act’s emotional revelations are a smidge drawn out, and the third act confrontation is a little rushed. Considering what we learn in that second act, the third act could really have used an extra beat or two to hit the full emotional resonance that it could have. Also, there is a certain familiarity to the form of the final monster that Kubo must face, but in truth this takes nothing away from the beauty of the animation and design.
Outside of Studio Ghibli it is so rare to see a film with this level of craftsmanship, artistry, and heart, and I feel it will be some time before it is matched. The characters are relatable, the story is compelling, the screenplay is beautiful and, for the most part wonderfully un-rushed. All this and then you add the visuals, which would put this film in the “must watch” category all on their own, and you are left with a movie that is not only treat for the eyes, but also so deeply layered that everyone will take something from it, be it the beautiful visuals, the well directed characters and action, or the running themes of the acceptance of death and growing up. Those of you that follow my reviews on this site will know I am not known to gush with praise, but I know I’ll be back to visit Kubo sooner rather than later, and I can only recommend that you join me.
- a compelling story.
- sumptuous visuals.
- the wonderful voice cast.
- rich world building.
- a natural heir to Studio Ghibli’s crown.
- a slightly rushed third act.