Leave it to Laika to remind you that quality animation is not solely in the pocket of Big Mouse. After their amazing interpretation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, their homage to classic horror and Goonies-esque 80’s adventure films with ParaNorman, and a wild urban fairy tale with The Box Trolls, brings us a new treat in the form of a Japanese folk tale in Kubo and the Two Strings. If you want to avoid any of the spoilers that may follow this and just want a straight up opinion, I’ll just say what I told my friend after the movie: “If more movies were like that, I’d actually go to the movies more often.” It’s a story that is tight, where everything is established and foreshadowed, the characters are well acted and given well rounded three dimensional personalities, the animation is gorgeous and the cinematography is artistic. In short, this film should be on your Must See list even if your not a normal fan of animation. It’s not just a great animated movie, it’s a great movie in general.
Spoilers to follow beyond the break.
Kubo is a young boy with one eye who lives in a cave with his near catatonic mother. He performs elaborate folk tales using a magical shamisen (three stringed lute) that causes pieces of paper to come alive and fold themselves into elaborate origami figures that act out the stories. His mother has instructed him never to be out after dark or else he might be found by his grandfather – The Moon King – who stole his eye when he was a baby. Naturally, the story kicks into gear when Kubo does stay out after dark, at a celebration where the local villagers light lanterns to pray and speak to their passed on loved ones and Kubo wishes to speak to his departed father, Hanzo the brave samurai warrior. When Kubo’s wicked sorceress aunts come to take him back to the Moon King to have his other eye removed, Kubo has to set out on a wild journey across the mythical landscape to gather the three legendary armor pieces that will protect him from the Moon King: The Sword Unbreakable, The Armor Impenetrable, and the Helmet Invulnerable. His journey is joined by Monkey, an ape talisman brought to life by Kubo’s mother’s magic, Beetle, a former warrior cursed to be a humanoid beetle with no memories, and “Hanzo” a little papercraft samurai that points the way for the party with his tiny paper sword. Over the course of the journey, they do battle with massive threats, dangerous traps, and Kubo’s fiendish aunts and Kubo will gain – and lose – much.
Like any classic folk story, the premise is deceptively simple. Get the three things. That’s it. But like many good folk tales, the challenges that must be overcome are dangerous, exciting, and tailored to directly hinder our characters specifically. For example, a hypnotic eyeball monster at the bottom of the sea that shows visions of everything you ever wanted ensnares Kubo with a vision of a family life he’s never known. But what really keeps the whole thing rolling and interesting is the characters and their interactions. They grow to like each other. When one gets hurt, you honestly feel bad for them. Even the villain has understandable if completely misguided motivations about why he wants to rip the eye from a young boy’s head. To some of the more perceptive members of the audience, some of the revelations that occur late in the movie can be figured out a head of the time – but that’s not because it’s so much blatantly obvious as the clues were well foreshadowed. To the point where on a repeat viewing, you’ll likely find yourself going “OOOOOH! So that’s why X happens.”
While the film spends a lot of time developing these characters and actually succeeds in making you care about them and their journey a good deal, that’s not to say that this doesn’t have some excellent action moments. Oh no. I would say that this film easily has some of the BEST action that Laika has ever produced. The fights aren’t jumbled, cluttered or disorientated with a number of quick cuts like so many action movies nowadays. The camera frames the fights like they were a dance, poetically at a distance and framed beautifully that you can appreciate the action along with the gorgeous visuals. The fight with the First Aunt in particular is done magnificently, never showing the end of the fight but leaving no doubt as to the outcome as you see the Aunt’s mask sink into the ocean, cut in two.
The performances were surprisingly well done. I’m always a bit dubious when big name screen actors are cast in a voice role, because while both are forms of acting there’s clearly a difference when you can only use your voice to portray the story. I am happy to say that Charlize Theron turns in a great performance as the protective and blunt Monkey, and even happier to say that Matthew McConaughey turns in an AMAZING performance as the absent minded Beetle who really grows a heart through the course of the movie. No character is really just a one note character. No one is relegated to “just” being the comic relief tag along.
The visuals are breathtaking, from the sight of a massive skeleton warrior attacking the heroes to the rolling waves of the Endless Shore, ever detail is exquisitely done. The movie merits a watch just for the beautiful visuals alone. The animation is some of the smoothest produced by Laika with wonderful detail put into the character models like little scars or the wear and tear on Beetle’s carapace. As I mentioned in the action sequences, the shots aren’t afraid to hang back and let you take in all the gorgeous scenery Laika handcrafted for the film. Also, if you happen to see it 3D your in for a treat. The 3D here is really well done. It’s never overtly in your face save for a few moments during the fight scenes, and kind of just ends up blending into the movie experience and enhancing it. There’s no moment that made me go “WHOA.” but there also wasn’t ever a moment where the 3D felt tacked on or detracted from the experience either. It was mostly just a nice addition. Pleasant but if no one is showing it in 3D it won’t be like your missing half the experience.
Overall, Kubo and the Two Strings has been one of the best movies of the year for me. I was enraptured by the film and it had me entertained the whole way through. From the dramatic revelations and losses, to the hilarious side banter, to the breathtaking visuals and the heart pounding action sequences. This is hands down a great movie for people of ANY age. There’s a bit of blood in the film, and the issue of death is brought up, but the worst it gets is a bloody scratch from battle or lifeless bodies on the ground. To rest any parents’ minds out there, while the topic of eye removal is mentioned – YOU NEVER SEE THE EYES GET REMOVED. This is not a gory film. But if your kid is old enough to enjoy Power Rangers or Dragon Ball Z, then you should be fine here. It has some great messages to pass on, including how death isn’t always the end as our stories will live on in those we have shared them with, or the importance that just because your related by blood – doesn’t always make you family and vice versa.
Go see it. Like, now. I dunno how much longer it will be in theaters. I saw it on a Friday night and there was EIGHT of us in the theater. So go now while you can!