Despite having four animated features under their belts, Laika still feels like a studio with something to prove. Their films, absolute marvels of stop-motion (even The BoxTrolls, which is an animation showcase if nothing else), never seem to connect at the box office the way they ought. Kubo and the Two Strings bears this out in its opening moments, as our hero Kubo puts on a dazzling performance for the people in his village but can never seem to bring home more than a few coins for his trouble. Just like Kubo, Laika deserves more than a pittance, as their latest feature is a remarkable piece of work.
When we first meet young Kubo (Art Parkinson), he and his mother are living in exile in a small Japanese village. Every day, Kubo goes into town and tells the story of a brave warrior named Hanzo using his magical shamisen to animate origami performers. When Kubo’s twin aunts (Rooney Mara) destroy the village in search of the boy, his mother sends him away on a quest to recover his father’s armor, which will protect him against his evil grandfather, The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Aiding Kubo on his journey are a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and an amnesiac samurai trapped in the body of a beetle (Matthew McConaughey).
Written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler from an original story by Shannon Tindle, Kubo’s plot is a fairly straightforward affair. Free of the narrative tangents or labyrinthine subplots that make up most of Laika’s previous films, Kubo’s script is more streamlined, rarely losing sight of its journey. Things get a bit episodic in the second act, as our heroes encounter one monster after another, but each of these sequences is so engaging and expertly animated that this is hardly a complaint. The most impressive of these finds Kubo, Monkey and Beetle facing off against a giant skeleton with a hundred swords planted in its skull. (You’ll want to stay through the end credits to catch a glimpse of this sequence being animated. The skeleton model is enormous.)
Setting Kubo in a fantastical version of feudal Japan opens the film up to some masterfully executed fight sequences. Kubo draws inspiration from Japanese and Chinese martial arts films in equal measure, and combining these styles means no two fights feel the same. The best sequence in the film is a nighttime battle in the rain between Monkey and one of Kubo’s twin aunts. The aunts are haunting figures that float through the air, their faces hidden behind kabuki masks, and their weapon of choice a chained scythe. This makes for an incredible dynamic, as the two combatants dance around these chains like something straight out of a Zhang Yimou film.
At Kubo’s heart is a lesson about honoring our elders and passing their tales down to the next generation. The story of Kubo’s family is one of tumult and tragedy, but in recounting that story to his fellow villagers, and embellishing some of the stranger details, Kubo grants his family a kind of immortality. The act of remembering them makes Kubo stronger; emotionally, if not perhaps physically. It’s a unique lesson for a children’s film. In that sense, Kubo becomes a sort of companion piece to ParaNorman, itself about remembering our history so as not to repeat it. Our pasts define us just as much as our actions in the present, which is a lesson worth remembering now more than ever.
Of course, there’s an elephant in the room here, and we might as well address it. Yes, it is a bit strange for a studio of mostly white American animators to make a film about Japanese characters passing down their heritage to their children. It’s strange for that story to be a wholly original creation and not a retelling of an actual folk tale. And it’s also strange for George Takei to be the Asian cast member with the most lines, at precisely two. The cast was clearly chosen more for their star power and name recognition than for authenticity, which is certainly a shame. These things are unfortunate; no one is saying that they aren’t. Representation is a conversation absolutely worth having, but this is frankly the only blight against an otherwise outstanding little film.
While Kubo is ostensibly geared toward children, and its sense of humor often reflects the fact, it offers more than enough to engage moviegoers of all ages. Older kids and teens might get the most out of it in terms of family audiences, but animation fans of any age should jump at the chance to see this film. Coupled with a gorgeous musical score by Dario Marianelli and some top-flight animation by the best stop-motion artists in the business, Kubo and the Two Strings is hands-down one of the year’s most captivating creations.Liked This? Share It!