Kubo and the Two Strings is Laika’s most poignant, entertaining, and beautiful film yet – and one of the best movies, animated or not, of 2016.
Kubo (Art Parkinson) is not like most kids in his seaside Japanese village. Instead of carefree play, Kubo spends his days earning income by entertaining local townspeople with thrilling samurai stories and magic origami. Each night, before the sun sets, Kubo returns home to care for his mentally ill mother – and though he dreams of grand adventure and a greater purpose, he appreciates his uncomplicated life all the same. Until, one day, he is confronted by a pair of vengeful sisters – supernatural spirits who have been laying in wait to claim Kubo for the Moon Knight.
Left with no choice but to flee from the Moon Knight, Kubo sets out on a journey of self-discovery, joined by companions Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), to learn about his deceased father and collect a series of powerful artifacts. The expedition takes Kubo far from home, into dangerous and strange lands full of dangerous monsters, and face-to-face with an evil force hell-bent on defeating Kubo. With no one to stop Moon Knight, Kubo must trust his friends, follow in his father’s footsteps, embrace his destiny, and unleash the full power of his magic!
Kubo and the Two Strings is the latest in a robust lineup of fan-favorite, and critically acclaimed, stop-motion fantasy adventures from Laika Entertainment (Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls). The film marks the directorial debut of Laika CEO Travis Knight who, previous to Kubo and the Two Strings, served as a lead animator on the studio’s other projects, and the freshman filmmaker delivers another hit for the beloved animation studio. In fact, thanks to Knight and a rich premise, Kubo and the Two Strings is Laika’s most poignant, entertaining, and beautiful film yet – and one of the best movies, animated or not, of 2016. Fans of Laika are sure to be thrilled by what the studio has delivered this time – but, where certain entries in Laika’s filmography might have been a little too niche (or downright too weird) for casual filmgoers, Kubo and the Two Strings is slightly more approachable (without sacrificing artistic integrity).
Knight draws inspiration from legendary Japanese filmmakers, most notably Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki, blending classic East Asian folklore with modern style and stop-motion technology. In an industry where many 3D computer animation studios strive to conquer the uncanny valley, Kubo and the Two Strings is a refreshing change of pace. It’s no small feat that Kubo and the Two Strings is among the most breathtaking and inventive animated films to hit the big screen but beyond technological achievement, it’s also a genuinely charming and rousing experience that can be appreciated by moviegoers of all backgrounds and ages (though, as with prior Laika movies, certain moments may be too scary for especially young children). Knight delivers on all fronts with striking stop-motion visuals, drawing from Kamakura painting and calligraphy traditions, a heartfelt tale of family, and insight into the human experience (both the good and the bad).
Kubo inhabits a rich world packed with colorful environments and imaginative creatures – not to mention a unique depiction of magic and mysticism. Where previous Laika movies have often limited the main characters to dense and tightly-packed environments, Kubo and the Two Strings is a sprawling adventure – one that challenges Laika to push the boundaries of stop-motion animation (and, subsequently, set a new bar for the subgenre). In addition to underwater sequences, lengthy set pieces that contain extensive environmental effects work, and high-flying martial arts fight choreography, Kubo and the Two Strings also features the studio’s most expressive characters to date – adding a layer of complexity and subtlety to the heart-warming story at its core. By contrast, the studio’s ability to reflect human emotion in lifeless stop-motion objects is made all the more interesting when audiences meet the film’s antagonists – a pair of sisters (whose faces are hidden behind static masks) and the Moon Knight (who looks upon the world with disinterest through clouded eyes). In a tale that explores the importance of expression and human emotion, this juxtaposition is especially impactful.
Kubo (voiced by Game of Thrones‘ Art Parkinson) is an endearing lead who, in spite of his supernatural abilities and mythic quest, is rooted in universal human emotions, tasked with overcoming loss and yearning to better understand himself in the process. As a window into the magic-filled world of ancient Japan, Kubo is a straightforward protagonist – leaving room for Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) to fill the story with exposition and humor. Both characters are memorable supporting heroes in Kubo and the Two Strings – and the two provide amusing banter, sincere insights, and slick action moments throughout. The film’s antagonists, The Sisters (Rooney Mara) and the Moon Knight (Ralph Fiennes), are more allegorical than flesh-and-blood evildoers but, given that Kubo and the Two Strings is, above all else, a nostalgic throwback to Japanese folklore and cinema, the villains serve their purpose.
As suggested, with Kubo and the Two Strings, Knight and his collaborators have created an especially rich visual experience – one that is absolutely worth a 3D ticket where available. Moviegoers who are reluctant to spring for 3D tickets won’t be missing anything crucial but, without a doubt, Laika’s animation style and the otherworldly depiction of ancient Japan both benefit from the added immersion of a premium format.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a powerful reminder that modern animation is rife with opportunity for artistic experimentation and reinvention. Knight’s film is unlike anything moviegoers will have seen before – expertly blending the best of modern animation, Japanese folklore, and supernatural storytelling for an inspiring (and entertaining) tale of courage in the face of grief. While Kubo and the Two Strings will not be to every moviegoer’s taste, there’s no question the film is a fully-realized reflection of the studio’s vision and intent from beginning to end – and, subsequently, a must-see movie experience for any cinephile.
Kubo and the Two Strings runs 101 minutes and is Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.
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