Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril
Score: 4 out of 5
Over the last several years, the Oregon-based stop-motion animation studio Laika has established itself as something of an arthouse version of Disney, filling the role that Pixar vacated (at least in the minds of critics) once the Cars films decisively ended their '00s golden age. They're the animation studio for movie nerds, every one of their films a labor of love displaying an intense level of craftsmanship, their closest rival in terms of pure artistry probably being the legendary Japanese anime company Studio Ghibli. It makes perfect sense, then, that Laika eventually made an homage to Studio Ghibli in the form of Kubo and the Two Strings, a family adventure set in a fantasy world heavily inspired by Japanese mythology. I can't say it's Laika's best film, an honor that still goes to ParaNorman, but given that that is one of the best animated films of the decade in my book, I'll happily give this one second. Kubo and the Two Strings is an amazing film that, like so many other great family films this year, didn't deserve to go ignored at the box office. (Hell, I'm still kicking myself for waiting so long to see this.) Yes, the storyline looks generic at first glance. No, it's probably never gonna have a ride at Universal or Disney World. But I'll eat my shoe if this film didn't make a bad summer for movies, one that's seen good films bomb and bad ones be way too numerous (there's a reason my reviews have been slow this summer), a hell of a lot more bearable.
Our hero is Kubo, a young boy who lost his left eye as an infant and supports himself and his ill mother by going into town every day and playing his shamisen, a guitar-like, three-stringed musical instrument. He's a darned fine player, using his music to bring origami figures to life and tell stories about the mythical deeds of his late father Hanzo, a samurai who gave his life to save Kubo and his mother from her father, the evil Moon King (voiced by Ralph Fiennes). One day, while honoring Hanzo at the shrine outside of town, Kubo accidentally stays out past dark despite the warnings of his mother to always return before the sun sets, lest he find himself taken by the Moon King and his other two daughters, a pair of masked witch assassins known only as the Sisters (voiced by Rooney Mara). The Moon King, you see, wishes to take Kubo's other eye and make him a proper heir to his villainy. When the Sisters chase Kubo and burn down the village in the process, Kubo's mother spirits him away to the wilderness to keep him out of the Moon King's clutches, telling him to find the three pieces of his father's armor if he is to defeat the Moon King. Out there, Kubo teams up with Monkey (Charlize Theron), a former wooden monkey charm of Kubo's that his mother turned into a real, living, and very snarky monkey as part of her spell to send him off, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a former samurai and apprentice of Hanzo's who was cursed by the Moon King and turned into a bug-man.
The plot I recounted will feel at least somewhat familiar if you've seen any of the anime that Laika is homaging here, especially any Ghibli productions, and I've also heard it compared to The Legend of Zelda, of all things. It's not particularly groundbreaking in terms of storytelling, but while it is a very traditional story, it is one that is told quite well. It's not a comedy, but it's got a light, friendly tone for most of its length, though it isn't afraid to get serious when the situation calls for it, the lighter moments making the dark ones stand out that much more and hit that much harder. The fairly clean humor works, derived less from humorous bodily functions and more from the characters' interactions and the situations they find themselves in; DreamWorks or Illumination, this is not. (That, and making the most of George Takei's bit part as one of the villagers, including his trademark "oh my!") The voice cast is excellent, with Art Parkinson giving life to Kubo's otherwise conventional "hero's journey", Charlize Theron's Monkey playing in much the same wheelhouse as Furiosa (albeit as a monkey), Matthew McConaughey being both lovably goofy and incredibly badass as Beetle, and Ralph Fiennes making the most of his limited screen time as the Moon King. The main show-stopper, though, was Rooney Mara as the Sisters, in a performance that would've made me forgive her for a dozen Nightmare on Elm Street remakes. The Sisters serve as the face of evil for most of the movie before the climax, and their creepy-cool visual design paired with voice work by Mara that puts an almost demonic presence behind their off-kilter, uncanny-valley style made me forget that they weren't even the main villains as opposed the henchwomen of the real bad guy. Furthermore, without spoiling anything, the main characters' stories are all tied together in interesting ways that add a ton of punch to the third act, ways that are foreshadowed early on and make this one film that's definitely worth a rewatch to catch things I missed. Let's just say, when I realized just why this film was titled Kubo and the Two Strings even though Kubo's shamisen technically has three strings, it became quite difficult to fight the feels.
And as is to be expected of Laika, this film is absolutely gorgeous. By combining old-fashioned stop-motion animation with modern 3-D printing and just enough CGI to remove the strings and make it blend together without drowning out the physical figures, Laika has made their business out of proving that stop-motion is capable of far more than just jerky, old-fashioned Ray Harryhausen flicks and Sid & Marty Krofft shows. Some of the creations featured in this film rival anything in most Hollywood blockbusters in terms of sheer scale, most notably a fight with a giant skeleton that features in a brief "making of" scene during the end credits that makes its size that much more impressive. They let their pride in their work shine through in every scene, with painstaking attention to detail as you realize how many little moments, things that wouldn't make the viewer bat an eye in a live-action film, had to be done frame by frame. And the effort they spent to create this world pays off in how darned good it looks. A pastiche of feudal Japan, the world of Kubo is filled with breathtaking vistas as its title character crosses his fishing village home (populated with characters who all have a distinct look and personality), snowy mountains, a stormy sea, foreboding forests, and a ruined castle on his quest. It wears its anime inspiration on its sleeve without ever feeling like a ripoff, like Laika was doing it just to cash in on a trend; from start to finish, this film is a labor of love (the end credits dedicate it to the late manga writer Shigeru Mizuki), and it pays off in the form of a film that is gorgeous to watch.
The Bottom Line:
How did so few people see this film? Especially an animated family adventure released just weeks before the start of school, at a time when it may have been the only good film in theaters? Regardless, I'm glad that I didn't miss this one, and you guys should definitely check it out too.