MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Stop-Motion Animated Action Fantasy/Voices of: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, Brenda Vaccaro, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa/Runtime: 102 minutes
I think it can safely be said that, out of all of the animation studios in the land of movie magic, Laika Entertainment has been the one to always act like there have been brushed over. This is because for the past decade-plus this animated studio has done an impeccable job at keeping stop-mo animation alive and well courtesy of such slices of cinema as Coraline and ParaNorman to name but a couple. Yet even though the results have always been highly regarded by critics as truly distinct from anything the other major animation studios seem to be working on, the audience response sadly hasn’t matched up to that. With that being said the slice of cinema I am reviewing today, 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings, does give off the vibe that every single movie of Laika’s that came before it really was just a warm-up act. Indeed a Japanese folklore-rooted saga about the power of not just grief, but in remembering those who came before you so you can discover who you are meant to be let alone storytelling in general, I think it should be said that this slice of cinema from the fantastic animators over at Laika may very well also be one of their on-point from an emotional perspective. No it might not be as fear-inducing as something akin to Coraline (though a pair of this film’s villains might just become your nightmares’ newest BFFs. Nor for that matter is anywhere close to the level of pungent as something say The Boxtrolls even if a scene in this might give you a serious sushi craving. At the same time however, this slice of cinema does manages to immerse itself in some of the more gloomy pathways found in the heart with an amount of bravery that you don’t see often in “family films” and with an amount of strength that is even rarer especially when you factor in that this is meant for both kids and adults all with the aid of both truly vibrant work from the animation department and lively work from a truly game voice cast to boot. Thus yes the summer of 2016 was at times hit or miss for movie theaters, but when one of the films from that summer is a gem like this it really can be, and should be, quite easy to forget about a fair amount of the misses that came with it.
The plot is as follows: Kubo and the Two Strings gets underway courtesy of a prologue that manages to place its characters first and foremost into the kind of material that myths and legends are constructed from. Following that, this slice of cinema proceeds to introduce us to our main hero who we will be following along with. That being a young man by the name of Kubo. A one-eyed, optimistic yet also serious 11-year old who resides with his distressed yet loving mom in a cave just outside a tiny village. As for his father, we are led to believe that the man was a terrific warrior by the name of Hanzo who laid down his life so Kubo could at least have one eye, but other than that the only things we are told about him are what Kubo knows courtesy of stories told by his mom. Yet despite not entirely being aware on just who he is or where he comes from, it is very much made aware that Kubo might not be what you consider to be ordinary. A feat he shows every single day by heading to the village square and, much to the astonishment of the immense crowd of on-lookers, bring origami paper to intricate life in the forms of Hanzo and his enemies respectively and thus regale the crowd with stories about the legendary warrior. Yet as much as he would like to, we soon learn that Kubo is never able to tell the audience that has gathered just how his stories are supposed to end. This is because by the first suggestions that the sun is about to go down, our young hero has to swiftly make his way home and stay there until the sun comes back up again at dawn. Failure to do so, according to his mom, will result in a sinister deity known as the Moon King hunting Kubo down and taking away his remaining eye. Unfortunately it’s not long before we see Kubo fail to follow this particular instruction. This is because due to being both riveted by the emotion found in the community’s Obon Festival (a festival where people are able to bring forth and interact with the spirits of their deceased loved ones and subsequently help them make their way back to the Great Beyond), and extremely tempted by a strong urge to speak to the spirit of his father, we see that our young hero unfortunately is out just a tad bit later than what he is supposed to. As a result, we see that he is fairly swiftly attacked by his pair of sinister aunts with his dear old mom intervening in order to save him only to have her seemingly lose her life in the effort. Yet it isn’t long thereafter that we see our intrepid hero wake up in the aftermath of the attack only to find himself in the gut region of a dead and iced over whale and face to face with a talking and extremely grumpy monkey who immediately lets him know that if he wishes to kill the being responsible he will need to locate his dad’s legendary armor that his mom always told him about in her stories. Thus we see that Kubo and Monkey, along with the aid of an amnesiac yet devoted and skilled beetle warrior, embark on a quest to find the armor. A quest that will see them not only head all over the map, but also potentially uncover some long-buried secrets that when is said and done may just very well change Kubo’s life forever….
Now despite being a slice of cinema made by a production company from the U.S., this stop-mo animated slice of cinema chooses to take place in a take on medieval Japan drenched in fantastical elements (as if the beetle warrior and talking monkey didn’t exactly give that away). As a result, this slice of cinema finds itself being weaved into a vibrant tapestry consisting of blending together things seen in both Japanese and Western literature and theater in an attempt for audiences to view both distinct cultures through a new lens than they might have previously. Thus, much in the same vein as what Akira Kurosawa did with Shakespeare’s plays and/or present day filmmakers choosing to remake certain Japanese slices of cinema for an American audience such as when Seven Samurai became a western called The Magnificent Seven, we see that Kubo and the Two Strings decides to utilize its Japanese locale in order to showcase audiences in other countries a distinct way for looking at the ideas of death, grief, and the power of remembering your family and who you are. Indeed through a metaphysical presentation of what happens after we die that is very much rooted in Shinto as well as Buddhist beliefs, this slice of cinema conjures up a potent allegory for how we as people transport our memories of those we’ve loved and lost on the inside. A manner incidentally that does a wonderful job of not only hopefully inspiring conversation with your own loved ones after the movie is over, but also one that both reinforces and even gifts audiences with a riveting yet distinct take to the more common beliefs that people are aware of on this topic. It’s also worth praising this slice of cinema for how it manages to utilize its foreign locale in an effort to show just how brilliantly and artistically constructive cross-cultural dialogue can be for both parties involved. An example of this can best be seen in terms of the pair of wicked aunts because even though they are wearing a certain kind of mask that is very much in synch with the Japanese folk thematic element at the heart of this film they also in many respects reminded me of the Furies from Greek mythology.
Along those lines, I also find it to be quite praiseworthy to see that, very much unlike a lot of Disney movies that have made attempts to try to do the same thing, this slice of cinema’s back and forth between cultures does a beautiful job of respecting the native traditions whilst also being able to clearly and concisely explaining them to an audience that might not be as knowledgeable about them. Along with that, the brilliant mixture of old-school stop-mo animation as well as state of the art CGI animation on display here does manage to bless this slice of cinema with a vibrance that is simultaneously free-flowing whilst also being quite physical as well. A blending of past and present incidentally that this slice of cinema also does a wonderful job of showcasing in the film itself through its main character’s magical utilization of origami puppets to tell the story of his past. Now be it from the inside of a frozen whale corpse, the spooky and chilling remnants of a military fort, or a cemetery by the river that is lit up by the spirits of the deceased, this slice of cinema’s distinct set of backdrops that the narrative takes place in are furnished and designed beautifully thus giving this slice of cinema so truly gorgeous settings for the rest of the movie to play in especially in regards to some truly creative action beats. Action beats incidentally that include some creatively thought-up fantasy creatures and deities which will remind older audiences of not just the phenomenal effects of stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts from 1963 and the 1981 Clash of the Titans), but also of the various stories and myths that were inspirations for him and countless other creatives minds. Finally, much in the same vein as a lot of the musicians in those stories whose skill with an instrument was essential in overcoming enemies both fantastical and otherwise, we see that music really has a big part to play in this slice of cinema. Not just because the music in this is so beautifully moving, but because the narrative makes the brilliant choice to have our hero’s immense music talents be his best tool in his combat against the individuals who caused his situation to be what it is. A creative choice that also proves to be a subtly wonderful allegory for how art in any form can not only help individual people heal, but also societies as well.
Now as for the casting in this film, I will say that I understand where some of my fellow reviewers are coming from and I do agree that it is perhaps a bit odd to have white actors voicing Japanese characters in a movie set in Japan. I also agree that it was at the very least a nice gesture to have George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in this slice of cinema even if their roles aren’t really the biggest in the world (heck in the case of Takei it really does seem like he now has a clause in his contract where every role requires him to say at least once oh my). With that being said though, I do feel that the voice acting in this slice of cinema is still fairly well done. Indeed voicing both of Kubo’s downright sinister and raven-haired aunts is Rooney Mara who I feel does such a creepy job at reminding the adults watching this movie of the villainess from The Ring for example that don’t be surprised if she scares you more than the 6 or 8 year old watching near you at family movie night. As for Matthew McConaughey I will admit I was a bit puzzled to see him voicing Beetle in this, but as the movie went along I really did find myself not only laughing at his jokes, but also really appreciating the work McConaughey put into the role. Yes it’s still a bit unusual for me whenever I watch this and hear his southern fried Texas twang coming from the body of a Japanese beetle samurai warrior, but you know what? He gives the role the heart it needs and he ultimately does do fairly well in the part so I can accept it for what it is even IF my first choice still would have been Hiroyuki Sanada. As for Charlize Theron in this I can honestly say that I wasn’t puzzled by her casting in this as I was McConaughey’s, but I still feel that she does a great job at bringing that stoic and slightly chilled voice of hers to a role that honestly requires someone who sounds exactly like that. Suffice it to say that it is a truly wonderful performance from a truly gifted performer who I have always enjoyed whenever she appears in a movie.
All in all speaking from experience dear reader it is by no means the easiest thing in the world to view a slice of cinema that manages to swipe its way through the doom and gloom that comes with losing someone close to you with the sharpness of a katana let alone the clarity of a wise old seer. As such, you can imagine how immensely grateful I am that this slice of cinema is as respectful let alone on point and precise on the subject material as it has turned out to be. Indeed for the younger viewers out there amongst you who have tragically lost someone close to them that they loved more than life itself, this is one slice of cinema that I can assure you is an absolutely integral voice that they can utilize for their grief since it manages to talk to them with both an integrity and a frankness that a lot of other animated slices of a similar ilk might do everything in their power to avoid doing. If however you are a person that society would classify more so as an “adult”, but you know about grief just as much if not more so than some or all of your younger viewing counterparts then I am of the firm belief that this slice of cinema might be just as if not more important for you to give your time and attention to. I mean make no mistake dear reader: grief can be absolutely befuddling at its worst so it is extremely invaluable for the land of movie magic to give us a film that not only makes crystal clear the fragility of life, but also that as long as we have the memory of our loved ones in our hearts then they are not only always able to speak with us, but that we are also able to take them with us wherever we go in life. Suffice it to say that if memory can be as powerful of a thing as this slice of cinema tells us that it is then you owe it to your memory to give this phenomenally cast, vibrantly made, and truly beautiful both on the inside and out film a try. I promise you it will be one memory that will definitely be worth cherishing now and always. On a scale of 1-5 I give Kubo and the Two Strings “2016” a solid 4 out of 5.