If you must blink, do it now.
Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long, long time. The stop-motion animated adventure (directed by Travis Knight and released by Laika of Coraline, Para-Norman, and The Box Trolls fame) offers a fun experience with a lot of depth and creativity that a lot of this summer’s big blockbuster films have been sorely lacking, though not necessarily offering too much in the way of narrative complexity.
The plot follows Kubo, a one-eyed storyteller living with his semi-amnesiac mother in ancient Japan. Kubo tries his best to entertain the townsfolk of a local village with his tales of the great warrior Hanzo, chronicling the samurai’s quest for revenge against the mysterious and sinister Moon King. To do this, Kubo channels magic into his shamisen, bringing origami figures to life in a grand stage show that sets the whole village abuzz. Unfortunately, Kubo never gets a chance to finish his story; his mother insists that he return home before dark every day. As it turns out, the story holds a kernel of truth: Hanzo was Kubo’s father, and his mother’s mental state is a result of an escape attempt from the real Moon King, Kubo’s grandfather. She insists that he stays indoors as soon as it turns dark; if he doesn’t, his evil Aunts and the Moon King will find him and take away his other eye.
However, during a festival that’s heavily implied to be Obon (a Japanese celebration during which respect is paid to the dearly departed), Kubo stays out into the night in an attempt to communicate with his late father. His aunts suddenly arrive and demolish the town in a flurry of destruction and mayhem. Just before they nab their nephew, Kubo’s mother appears and uses her magic to spirit him away as she fights off her sisters. Now stranded in a far-away land, Kubo sets out to find three legendary pieces of armor that can help him defeat the Moon King once and for all.
The one thing everyone will be talking about after seeing Kubo is the animation. Laika’s got the stop-motion market on lock at this point, and their work keeps on improving with each movie they make. The movie utilizes a mix of stop-motion and CGI, and at times it feels like they become one and the same. The characters move with such fluid motions and their expressions shift so naturally that you may forget for a moment that you’re looking at a bunch of puppets and models. Even when you do notice little details (a few expressions definitely fall into the uncanny valley, intentional or not), the rest of the film looks stunning enough to put that out of mind. The fight scenes are incredibly creative, giving Laika a chance to show off their intricate model work and just how much detail and effort goes into the animation. The music is extremely important in helping the animation capture the audience’s imagination. The shamisen’s strings provide quick and jaunty tunes that emphasize the wonder and fun of Kubo’s world, and when the actions get more complex and detailed (as with a spectacular fight sequence mid-way through the film), the score swells up and adds in some serious dramatic flair to the proceedings.
The plot of Kubo follows the “Hero’s Journey” template to a T. If you’ve seen…well, any movie ever made, you know what I’m talking about. The protagonist wants more out of life but they can’t get it because there’s danger out in the big bad world. However, when something comes along and pulls them out of their world, they have to step up to the plate and complete a grand quest to save the day. The template isn’t bad by any means, but in really great movies there’s usually some kind of twist on the formula; that’s not especially the case here. The storyline is very much a trip from Point A to Point B, and you can see the story’s big twists coming from very early on if you pay attention. With that being said, none of this makes the story “bad” in any sense of the word. It hits all of the right emotional beats right when it should, the animation and music make up for its lack of depth with a lot of creative set pieces and designs, and the film is still paced tightly enough to keep your full attention through its hour-and-a-half run time.
The characters are what really make the movie. Kubo, played by Game of Thrones’ Art Parkinson, has a mischievous streak a mile wide, and his character feels like the most believable “kid” character in recent memory (alongside Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War). His magical powers offers both him and Laika a huge playground to test the limits of stop motion animation. Kubo’s magic can make basically anything that can be folded out of paper, ranging from something as simple as an origami bird to a paper craft samurai to even a boat. Making paper work just right in any kind of animation is tough, but the results can be breathtaking (just look at Disney’s short Paperman for another great example). Kubo’s personality is a perfect fit for the creativity of the animation, and it offers him a lot of room for character growth.
Over the course of his adventure, Kubo makes allies in the super-serious Monkey and the boisterous samurai/bug hybrid Beetle, voiced by Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey respectively. They act as Kubo’s shoulder angels with Monkey continually advising caution and care throughout the adventure and Beetle proceeding to toss said caution to the wind before rushing recklessly into battle. The three have perfect chemistry with each other, with lots of back-and-forth quipping and snarking between Monkey and Beetle especially. Parkinson, Theron, and McConaughey elevate the script to a new level and make up for the story’s deficiencies quite nicely. The villains are also solid if a little flat. While their scenes are few and far between, the unsettling performances by Rooney Mara as the Aunts and Ralph Fiennes as the Moon King definitely sent chills up my spine. The design work on all of these characters is extremely impressive, with every little wrinkle and groove on the characters’ faces (or, in some cases, masks) meticulously sculpted into a wide variety of expressions and poses.
One major flaw that the film has that may not be noticeable at first glance is in its casting. While all the performers put out solid performances all around, there’s a glaring omission in the main cast: anyone of Japanese ancestry. While the background townsfolk in Kubo’s village are voiced by people of Japanese descent (including a cameo appearance by George Takei), the main cast is made up of predominantly non-Japanese actors and actresses. Laika has mentioned in interviews that the team chose those who they thought were best for the role and that the rest of the project was developed with the help of various Japanese cultural and historical societies. The effort is definitely welcomed, but having at least one Japanese-American actor in any of the main roles would have really made Kubo shine, considering the amount of effort made to make the rest of film as Japanese as possible. Diversity doesn’t stop at creating diverse characters within media itself; the people these characters reflect deserve a chance to take center stage in projects that are ostensibly about their history and culture.Despite its flaws, Kubo and the Two Strings is another strong showing for Laika and one of the best animated features of the year if not the past few years. Its story is simple but effective, with an entertaining and enjoyable cast of characters to follow along with as they traverse through lush landscapes and thrilling action sequences. It’s a classic fairy tale for the modern age. With a lot of magic and just as much heart to back it up, Kubo’s tale is definitely one to watch.