In ages long past, a boy dazzled his town
With music and magic and tales of renown,
With legends and stories he conjured and staged
As fierce paper battles and paper wars waged.
His paper-fold figures delighted the folk,
Who sang the boy’s praises before the spell broke,
But no one would guess that the sagas he spun
Held echoes of truth for this samurai’s son.
The rush of a rousing adventure well-told
Can wither as soon as the papers unfold,
But when real adventure emerges from lore,
The tales and their memories mean a bit more.
MPAA rating: PG
I had the pleasure of seeing Kubo and the Two Strings as a sort-of double feature with Suicide Squad, and as the reviews of the latter would suggest, Kubo was easily the better film. In fact, I believe it has surpassed Chicken Run as my favorite stop-motion animated film, and mainly because it did something no other stop-motion movie has. The jerky movements or macabre aesthetic of past such films have defined the medium for years, but for the first time, Kubo made me forget I was watching stop motion. That makes it not only a visually incredible adventure with an imaginative story to boot, but a new high-point of achievement that Laika Entertainment can claim in their chosen field.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a heroic adventure influenced by ancient Japanese myth. Young Kubo (Art Parkinson) has been brought up in a seaside cave by his mother, who tells tales of how she saved him from her father, the Moon King, in an escape that cost Kubo one of his eyes and left her in a faltering mental state. Despite her warnings not to stay out after dark, one mistake leads to them being discovered by her menacing sisters (Rooney Mara), and, joined by a protective Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a dim-witted Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo is launched on a mystical quest to find his father’s lost armor, his only hope of survival.
Of course, the film’s most immediately remarkable trait is its animation. For once, Laika’s animation isn’t set on the creepy or grotesque, leaving such weirdness to only a few unnerving threats along Kubo’s journey (such as a preoccupation with eyes, also seen in Coraline). The freedom of the camera to capture all kinds of angles and both sweeping vistas and carefully crafted details sets the animation bar so high that only Laika will probably be able to outdo themselves in the future.
Despite the eerie effect that usually accompanies stop motion, Kubo and the Two Strings succeeds in balancing a variety of tones, from light and humorous during Beetle’s introduction to poignant during the mother’s backstory to absolutely wondrous when Kubo unleashes his magical shamisen (Japanese banjo) that controls origami puppets for his live performances. The plot may veer into some odd territory as it progresses, but Kubo and the Two Strings is aware of it, even encouraging viewers to hang with it in Kubo’s opening address. In doing so, the audience is taken on a dazzling ride with some darker-than-usual plot directions.
Alas, Kubo is not without some faults. Kubo admits to not being very good at ending his stories, and the filmmakers mirror that shortcoming to some extent. The final confrontation between Kubo and the Moon King is a bit randomly overblown with sentiment, and the resolution feels strange and manipulative, especially considering the importance the film places on memories. In a way, I see what the filmmakers were attempting, but they weren’t wholly successful. In addition, describing the Moon King as a celestial ruler of cold perfection might be seen as a criticism of God, but its basis in myth softens that objection, especially if compared with the cold “perfection” of other villains, like the Borg in Star Trek. Nevertheless, these complaints don’t ruin an otherwise outstanding film, and even if the ending could have been improved, I liked how the seemingly awkward title was given touching significance.
In an age of remakes and constant adaptations, Kubo stands out first and foremost as a work of pure originality. Animated films like The Secret Life of Pets are content to borrow other movies’ plot elements wholesale, but the folks at Laika have crafted something unique and presented audiences with sights they’ve never seen before. In a perfect world, that’s what a great film should do.
Best line: (Kubo, at the start of his stories) “If you must blink, do it now.”
© 2016 S.G. Liput
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