Movie Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

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A young boy whose mother has a mysterious past is thrust into a magical adventure.

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Travis Knight, 2016

Young Kubo (Art Parkinson) and his mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron) have lived in a cliff near a village for his whole life. By day, Kubo cares for his sick mother and makes money in the village by telling stories, accompanied by his magical shamisen, which he uses to make origami paper shift rapidly between different characters and props. By night, Kubo is forbidden to leave the cave. His mother tells him epic tales of his warrior father Hanzo, the bitterness of his grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who stole the infant Kubo’s eye, and the cruelty of his aunts (Rooney Mara). One night, Kubo strays out too late and endangers his life and his mother’s. Sariatu uses the last of her magic to protect Kubo, wishing him away to a far-flung land. There he meets the cranky, protective Monkey (also Theron) and the forgetful, funny Beetle (Matthew McConnaughey). They assist him in finding the three magical objects that his father quested after, so that he might defeat the Moon King once and for all. There are many dangers along the way, and Sariatu’s Sisters are determined to see the quest fail.

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Kubo and the Two Strings is the longest full-length animated feature ever made, and it is absolutely gorgeous. The stop motion animation in this film looks amazing. For me, it was a complete 180 from Boxtrolls, which I found almost unwatchable thanks to what I considered a particularly ugly design. By contrast, Kubo is stunning, from the character design to the landscapes to the fluidly animated stop-motion action scenes. Laika are really pushing the boundaries of what can be done in stop-motion. The shamisen-heavy soundtrack is also beautiful, perfectly punctuating the action. This is very much cinema as art, but it doesn’t sacrifice fun and entertainment to be beautiful. Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle are all fun, quirky characters. Beetle in particular hits my funny bone, but they all have an easy chemistry. The Sisters, by contrast, are particularly scary – a few of the children in the audience audibly gasped at different points when they were on screen. The film isn’t afraid to have real consequences for the actions of its heroes, and the epic scale comes with both highs and lows for Kubo to navigate. His journey has genuine emotional weight, something far too many children’s movies lack. And it looks awesome.

For all its beauty, though, there are definitely some issues with this film. As much as I appreciate the effort to set the film in Japan, there are some glaring inaccuracies about Japanese culture (there’s a whole scene where Kubo annoys Monkey by slurping his soup, when that’s actually considered polite in Japan). It’s really disappointing that the four central characters in this film are voiced by white actors, too, while actual Japanese-Americans like the great George Takei and Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa are relegated to minor side characters. Most adventure films like this inevitably fall into the trap of becoming too tropey and episodic, and Kubo is no exception. Fortunately the characters manage to keep the movie bubbling along, and each of the individual quests has an element of interest. The first quest involves a giant skeleton, and it’s a lot of fun. There’s an awesome fight between Monkey and one of the sisters on a disintegrating ship that is gorgeously put together during the second quest. The third quest goes to a surprisingly dark place, and the film’s resolution relies on Kubo’s strengths – storytelling, kindness, and compassion – to bring about an unexpectedly bittersweet finale. I found Kubo to be one of the best movies of the year, despite its problems. I really hope Laika makes an equally lovely female-led movie next.

Kubo and the Two Strings on IMDb

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