Kubo and the Two Strings review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The stop-motion animated movies of Laika have distinguished themselves greatly from their competition. They choose stories that are a little dark, a little gross and very original. There isn’t quite anything like Paranorman or The Boxtrolls. They also put a tremendous amount of craft into their work, animating some of the most state-of-the-art and beautiful stop-motion ever filmed. But their films have never really hit their full potential of delivering on a meaningfully emotional tale to balance with the stunning imagery. That was until Kubo and the Two Strings.
Told as a Japanese folktale, the plucky and one-eyed Kubo lives in a cave with his mother that is crippled with memory loss. By day, he ventures down to the nearby village to use his magical powers to earn some money. With a few plucks on his guitar, he has the magical ability to bring his origami creations to life. With this ability, he entertains a crowd for nearly the entire day with stories of samurai and demons.
But he must return to the cave by nightfall before an evil witch find him and finish the job they started. Kubo’s desire to learn more about his dad makes him late to arrive at home and he is attacked by a wicked, magical woman that wields deadly weapons and has the ability to duplicate herself. Saving her son, Kubo’s mother uses the last of her own magical ability to hold of the witch, instructing her son to find a magical armor ensemble that can stop such evil.
Aiding Kubo in his treasure hunting journey is a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Learning from the wise monkey and the brave beetle, that never overdo their comedic chemistry, Kubo develops his powers further as he ventures into dangerous lands of legendary terror. A towering skeleton guards a collection of swords lodged in its skull. Large eyes hypnotize Kubo underwater where tentacles seek to drown and eat him. And the impending threat of the evil magical sister carries real danger where each battle doesn’t end so triumphantly.
What’s most unique about this adventure is that it doesn’t pull punches when it comes to the darker aspects. I liken its tone to that of The Secret of NIMH or Watership Down as an animated film that can be seen by kids, but doesn’t talk down to them with the themes and content. There’s a faith in the younger crowd that they can handle heavy subjects of evil spirits, frightening monsters and death. Kubo gives fair warning in the opening credits, “If you must blink, do it now.” Similar to NIMH and Watership Down, it is sure to go down as a bit of a traumatic picture for kids to carry with them into adulthood, but they’ll look back on fondly for being willing to take the risk.
The animation by Laika is some of their best work to date. The 3D-printed models are more expressive than their previous movies to an almost absurd degree in their design. Just look at the face of the elderly woman that befriends Kubo with her wrinkled skin that stretches with every smile and wink. Examine the level of detail in the white monkey’s flowing fur during a snowstorm. There is so much freedom in this medium that the filmmakers are able to control everything from the tiniest movement of paper origami to the lanterns that transform into birds.
The biggest fault of Kubo would most likely be its fast-and-loose rules of magical origami, evil spirits and the power of ghosts. But there’s thankfully enough charisma, beauty and technical charm to warrant such a tale that above all wants to encourage the power of storytelling. And it can accomplish this theme while still weaving an action-packed plot of sword fights against supernatural monsters. It’s that rare breed of an animated epic that can be seen as an emotionally moving picture for adults and a badass revenge tale for kids.