Review: Kubo and the Two Strings
Kubo and the Two Strings
Director: Travis Knight
Starring: Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey
Laika has not been able to secure the place in the public conscious that Pixar has (likely due to the dearth of animated films now compared to 1995), but that doesn’t mean that Laika’s creepy stop-motion stylings haven’t surpassed the quality of Pixar in recent years. The truth is Laika is approaching the renaissance style of success and innovation that Pixar achieved in their golden years. Only time will tell if they will be able to maintain that standard for the 15 years Pixar did, but they’re halfway there and so far so good. Kubo and the Two Strings comes in as the strongest film since their debut Coraline. One whose dark story, earned humor, and wondrous animation make it a dazzling work that is truly, actually enjoyable for the whole family.
In a time where slow-mo gags, pop songs, and pop-culture references litter the oft barren landscape of children’s films, Laika is carving out a niche as something else altogether. The creepy story of Coraline threatened to be too scary for kids, Paranorman turned up the humor but also the humanity, and Boxtrolls threatened to be the ugliest kids movie of all time. Kubo goes in another direction and toward more of an epic adventure feel that the studio has never tried before. The film succeeds in following the Journey of a Hero and Disney adventure movie tropes while maintaining the Laika spirit and soul so that we are presented with something that feels deeper than your Secret Life of Pets.
Kubo immediately presents himself as a story-teller with the magical ability to make his origami come to life for the serialized adventure he puts on for the small village he lives outside of. It is unclear if he does this for money (the old lady who counsels him gets some donations), or for the love of the story. Kubo is able to weave a masterful tale day in and day out, but it always ends on a cliffhanger. Kubo doesn’t know how to end his story. That is because he is retelling the stories his mother tells him. She is befallen with a mysterious illness that causes her to go catatonic at times and she has strangely powerful dreams. The stories she tells Kubo are full of magic and adventure. She says they are true. Kubo is not sure that his heroic Samurai father dying at the hands of a mysterious Moon King is plausible. However, Kubo obeys his mother and returns before nightfall every night per her warnings.
What Kubo excels at is respecting the audience’s intelligence. The mother’s strange condition is not immediately explained via exposition. Questions are left to linger. How and why things are in the world, the truth of situations, are not immediately answered. That is so rare in children’s films that it becomes exceptional. Ideas are let play out like poetry instead of short declarative bursts.
Everything changes when Kubo is tempted to reach out to his dead father via lighting lanterns in Japanese tradition, and so he stays out past sunset one night, as he ponders whether that death has to be the end. From there the magic and mystery come to life in some truly scary Aunts of Kubo’s, who float across the ground and are hidden behind creepy Geisha masks and voiced to chilling effect by Rooney Mara.
As the adventure gets underway there are truly breathtaking images and animation. The water in the opening sequence (which asks you not to blink, and you shouldn’t) and the attention to detail in the environments is always just shy of unbelievable, as well as the creature design. The story gets more familiar as Kubo is teamed with a talking monkey (Theron, tough) and a goofy Beetle Samuai (McConnaughey, getting all the laughs) as he sets upon a quest to reclaim lost items while being hunted by the creepy witches.
Kubo perhaps doubles down on twists and surprises in a way that lessens the impact of them, though they’re never played up to distraction. As Kubo draws closer to his ending, he begins to realize that death is the ending to every story. Kubo also doubles down on death in a way that will put any Disney movies’ parental backstory to shame. And as Kubo grows to accept death as the natural and fitting ending to the story it rises to the level of the rightfully revered classics of Pixar in that it deals with adult issues and themes in mature ways for children. We don’t know what is next for the Oregon based company, but my money is on something good.
If you liked Kubo you might also like: Coraline, Iron Giant, Grave of Fireflies