Film Review: “Kubo and the Two Strings”

Beautiful animation is often overabundant in film. When large studios can afford to spend lavish sums of money on blockbuster features, the inevitable product is — barring any major missteps — technically excellent and well-made. That said, “Kubo and the Two Strings” offers a particularly splendorous visual landscape for its viewers. There’s a tactile finesse in the renderings, and the characters have weight and physicality absent from fully computer-animated work. “Kubo” is a gorgeous movie, and joyously parades production company Laika’s hallmark stop-motion style.

Kubo (Art Parkinson) begins the film living in modest surrounds: a mountaintop cave overlooking a placid and seemingly endless ocean. He cares for his mother, who was injured while spiriting her son away from the deadly and vengeful Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Day in and day out, Kubo goes to the village below to tell stories. Kubo channels magic through playing his shamisen, bringing his origami creatures to life. They move and perform along with his narration, and the effect is suitably remarkable — a tale within a tale.

However, Kubo’s position is precarious. His mother’s coherence and reliability only grow scanter with the years, and he yearns to know more of his famed father, long since deceased. Parkinson lends the titular character his voice, infusing Kubo with an earnest childishness simultaneously endearing and frightening. As the film stretches on, Kubo’s youth works against him, leading the boy to grief.

Kubo’s desire to commune with his father’s spirit simply sends him headlong into danger, away from the village upon a quest not to defeat evil, but to safeguard himself from it. He must find his father’s storied sword, helmet and armor — or the boy will die. The Moon King’s agents come with the night, and so Kubo fends against the wicked Sisters (Rooney Mara), whose appearance is both horrific and overawing. They move like monsters bereft of life and clash against Kubo’s steadfast guardians, Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Here, the film would be better served, fiscally and narratively, by employing professional voice actors: neither McConaughey nor Theron possess the necessary vocal flexibility to enliven their characters.

It seems sorrow seeped into “Kubo and the Two Strings” during its production, with no element of the film left untouched. Kubo’s life is a spare, bare existence, spent with an ailing parent, failures matching successes. Family looms large. According to the stories, those who are closest to us must always be protectors, but “Kubo” presents the vicious, and sobering alternative. So many children make due with dangerous families — Kubo is no exception. The heroes seek love and life, but bereavement is the holding current — a rare blessing, when popular media stolidly relies upon marketing manic tales of adventure and triumph. “Kubo” does contain its share of excitement, yes, but that is not the main fare.

There is a curious predicament; younger children will likely find “Kubo” frightening and inscrutable for its esoteric exploration of death, and older ones may be disappointed by the hazy, mythical plot. Certainly, its appeal is limited, but that’s no matter. A film tailored to all interests is an impossibility. It is enough that “Kubo” will be liked by some.

It is admirable, and alienating, when a film exists solely for itself. “Kubo and the Two Strings” is no perfect effort, but its visual direction and music are breathtaking in their ingenuity and polish. It is Laika CEO Travis Knight’s first directorial effort. There are no telltale marks of juvenilia, however. “Kubo” is painstakingly constructed and stylistically bold. Admittedly, at points, the dialogue palls, characters mouthing platitudes at one another, threatening to dissolve into sentimentality, but what the film fails to convey with words, it succeeds in showing through the scenery alone. One could watch “Kubo” in silence and find it just as compelling, if not more. And when Kubo declares that he shall give his story a happy ending, such a simple revelation is as stunning as any. He does, too. It’s a tad messy, but after all that has transpired, there can be no end without ragged edges.

Rating: A-
Director: Travis Knight
Starring: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara
Release Date: August 19, 2016
Rating: PG

Image Courtesy of Collider