Kubo and the Two Strings | Review
"A father’s goodness is higher than the mountain, a mother’s goodness deeper than the sea." - Japanese Proverb
A ship constructed of fallen leaves glides across a lake. Standing on its deck, a monkey with a katana, a beetle with a bow and arrow, and a young boy with a magical shamisen have undertaken an important quest. Lives are at stake, and great sacrifices have already been made, with more sure to come as they push onward. The sun is setting beautifully behind them as they sail over the mirror-like surface of the water, following the directions of a tiny paper samurai which serves as their compass, their faithful guide.
This is a story that feels like a legend of old, a myth that’s been passed down from generation to generation, ensuring that it’s message remains known to those willing to hear it. It’s also a story that could’ve been told many different ways, using many different methods. But it’s in this that Kubo and the Two Strings stands apart from any other animated film I’ve seen this year. The way in which Laika, the wonderful stop-motion animation studio known for critically acclaimed films like Coraline and Paranorman, weaved their craft into the very fabric of Kubo's story makes it, in my mind, one of the most brilliant and perfect films to hit theaters in recent memory.
I won’t bore you with a recounting of the plot because for one, I knew almost nothing going into seeing Kubo. All I could remember from the trailers was that it was a stop-motion animation film about a young boy who could bring paper to life with his shamisen. But after watching the story play out on screen, I realized that the marketing for this movie had done a great disservice to it. While Kubo and the Two Strings is indeed a movie for kids, it is not childish in any way. If anything, it’s more mature and thought-provoking than most live-action movies, handling subjects like death, loss, meaning, love, and familial bonds deftly and with appropriate nuance and emotional weight. Every plot point is measured and precise, every motivation and development meaningful and reasoned.
The fact that the character animation is done using stop-motion makes it all the more difficult to comprehend just how good the team at Laika is at their craft. Close-ups are detailed and framed well. Expressions are realistic and true to life, giving each character an authenticity that's seldom seen in stop-motion. If you watch the eyes of various characters, you’ll be able to see tiny reflections in them, and a wetness that makes them seem all the more real. It truly is breathtaking to watch these characters talk and move and interact with objects and each other. But once they started battling villains and jumping all over the screen with incredibly fluid and engaging choreographed movements, my jaw hit the floor. The sheer amount of time it must have taken these artists and designers and photographers and directors to write, conceptualize, film, and edit must have been astronomical. And then you watch it all happening in front of you within an hour and a half.
On the acting in the movie, I was really blown away by just how wonderfully cast it was. Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey both have terrific turns as Monkey and Beetle respectively, but it’s the talents and believability of Art Parkinson as Kubo who pulls everything together and makes a fantastical story seem grounded and true and real. Ralph Fiennes as The Moon King and Rooney Mara as the Sisters give two more great performances as the three villains of the film, but really, it’s the good guys who steal the spotlight, as they should. There’s also a great cameo by George Takai which, after realizing I had chosen the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek to see Kubo, made me appreciate it even more.
As usual, I look up information about the films I review before I start writing, and surprisingly for Kubo, I found that it was the directorial debut of Laika’s CEO, Travis Knight. I think he’s truly outdone himself here, as Kubo feels like it could’ve easily been directed by any one of Pixar's go to directors, from Andrew Stanton to Brad Bird to Pete Doctor. I think we can expect great things to come from Knight, and I hope he continues to steer Laika in the direction it’s going now. But alongside any great director is a team of massively talented individuals, without whom, a movie as big and intricate as Kubo and the Two Strings wouldn’t be possible. From the producers, to the writers, to the artists who crafted and built these incredible characters by hand (one of them is over 16-feet tall and was indeed animated using stop-motion), to the cinematographers and the editors and especially to the schedulers who kept everyone on track throughout production: your work was brilliant, and your movie is beautiful.
A special shout-out must be made for Dario Marianelli, the composer of the film. He’s infused so incredibly well the Japanese musical style and feel into the score of Kubo, and the music carries many of the scenes to even greater heights. It’s dramatic and playful and heart-wrenching without ever being overbearing or fading too much into the background. Somehow, Marianelli found the perfect middle ground for the score, and the film wouldn’t be the same without his talent.
Kubo and the Two Strings has a lot to say about our stories as human beings, especially about our beginnings and our endings. But the way it unflinchingly and bravely chooses to deal with its own character’s stories is what makes it feel so heartbreakingly true to real life, even in a world full of magic and spirits (although who’s to say ours isn’t as well?)
I think that’s what I loved so much about this beautiful, powerful film. It told its story from beginning to end without ever backing down. There are maybe a handful of animated films outside of Pixar’s library of work that can so fearlessly and effectively communicate a message as well as Laika has with Kubo.
In short, go and see this film. And if you must blink, do it now.