2016 – USA
Director: Travis Knight
Starring: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes
Words: N. Scatcherd
From Laika Entertainment – the stop-motion animation studio behind films such as Coraline and ParaNorman – comes the charming Kubo and the Two Strings. The film has rightly been drawing praise for its technical beauty and delicately told story, and is destined for cult adoration, if not the widespread mainstream acclaim it perhaps deserves.
The story is appealingly simple; Kubo, a young boy in feudal Japan, lives with his mother in hiding from their sinister extended family; Kubo’s wizard grandfather (Ralph Fiennes) and twin aunts (Rooney Mara) have killed Kubo’s father – a great samurai – and plucked out one of Kubo’s eyes, and now attempt to track the boy down to take his remaining peeper in order to “make him blind to humanity” (the film’s over-riding message, in classic animated family film tradition, is one of the importance of friendship, family and human connection. The metaphoric danger of being “blind” to kindness and love is here made literal in a way which recalls the kind of ancient folkloric tales the film draws from).
After Kubo and his mother are found and attacked by their evil estranged relations, Kubo is cast adrift and left in the care of ‘Monkey’; a magical monkey charm Kubo carries with him, suddenly brought to life as a full-size ape voiced by Charlize Theron. This is all before they meet a beetle samurai voiced by Matthew McConaughey (similarly just called ‘Beetle’), and they get into fights with giant floating eyeballs and a rock/skeleton creature with a load of swords stuck in its head. You know what, maybe the actual details of the story are a little weirder than I was letting on.
Basically though, it’s your classic ‘magical item quest’ narrative, as our trio of heroes search for Kubo’s father’s sword, helm and armour in order to defeat his grandfather and aunts. The plot has a couple of shaky moments, although to go into detail would be to spoil a few things; suffice to say there are some ‘big reveals’ which many viewers will likely have figured out well in advance, so the emotional heft of such moments is slightly undercut by how obvious they feel. That said, it’s very easy to forgive. The film is given terrific life and warmth by excellent voice acting all round and truly stunning animation.
Special mention must be made of the latter – every frame of Kubo is absolutely gorgeous and Laika bring their usual craft and eye for intricate detail, from individual strands of hair to golden sunlit forests; magically sentient origami figures to gigantic demons; it’s all amazing to look at and is a prime example of stop-motion animation at its most painstaking and enrapturing.
The film’s greatest strength in terms of storytelling may actually be just how mature it is in its sensibilities. This is a ‘family film’ in the best, truest sense; something which is appropriate for kids without talking down to them, while remaining emotionally engaging and affecting for adults. It doesn’t sugarcoat some occasionally intense moments, both visceral – such as in a couple of fight scenes between Monkey and the evil sisters – and emotional (there’s some fairly heavy, matter of fact stuff about dealing with loss here, and I don’t mind admitting that an absolutely beautiful scene towards the end had me tearing up).
For all of its technical brilliance – and I think I’ve made it clear that it has that in spades – the best thing about Kubo and the Two Strings is that it proves how vital animated films can be if done right. In presenting their moral lessons and emotional stakes in terms of magical worlds, outlandish characters and fundamental visual ‘unreality’, they can circumvent many of the usual critical faculties and somehow illuminate great beauty and joy in the world, in a way live action films – in all their recognisable ‘reality’ – sometime struggle to match. Potentially stuffy film theory waffle aside, it’s a rare and genuine pleasure to join Kubo on his adventure.