Directed by Travis Knight (Feature Directorial Debut)
A young boy, his eye stolen by his grandfather the Moon King when he was a baby, must go on a quest to locate a magical suit of armor and defeat his grandfather and his minions.
This is an absolutely amazing work of stop motion animation. It is beautiful and it is exciting. It is a mature work of animation with a sophisticated story that is also family friendly. Laika understands that family friendly does not equal shallow or simplistic. It is a more complex film than what you get from Disney. It gives the audience credit to not only understand its sophistication but be able to handle it as well.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a poignant story boosted by seriously wonderful performances. There is genuine acting here that breathes life into the characters. These are not interchangeable pieces but rather distinct individuals that you can believe have thoughts and feelings of their own.
The character of Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is dealing with the absence of a father that he only knows from the stories of his mother Sariatu (voiced by Charlize Theron) who in the opening of the film is portrayed as being not all there. They are fanciful tales that create a larger than life figure of his father Honzo (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) for Kubo who uses them to earn money for his mother and he by using magic to manipulate origami with music from his shamisen for the people of the village near his cave. These stories enthrall them, but he cannot complete them because even he does not know what the ending is.
Kubo’s quest is not just a journey to save the day. It is a journey to deal with his past and perhaps heal himself. He is doing as much to keep himself safe as he is to find a genuine connection to his father and avenge his mother.
The love story between Kubo’s mother and father is sweet and sad and moving. It has passion and heart to and is presented as a great and epic love story. It is not cutesy and goofy though it has some of those moments. It is a genuine and deep love that you can see in the context of the story affecting things grander than just mankind.
The Moon King (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) is a truly malevolent villain. They build him up through the film. But they do not show him right away. First you meet Sariatu’s sisters Karasu and Washi (both voiced by Rooney Mara). They are frightening characters who are nearly identical in appearance. The implication is that Sariatu was just like them before Honzo’s love changed her. Big stuff for an animated feature.
The stakes are high in the final confrontation between Kubo and his grandfather. There is a real sense of the fate of everything hanging upon what happens between these two characters. The Kubo character is shown to be not only brave but clever as well. The character design of the Moon King reminds me a bit of Peter Cushing as Grand Mof Tarkin.
I do take some issue with the final disposition of the Moon King but one of the themes in this film is the redemptive power of love so I guess I can let it slide. Considering everything he has done or ordered others to do he gets off quite easy all things considered though.
Memories and their value-their importance-is a significant theme throughout this movie. Kubo has no memories of his father or a normal family life. Kubo’s parents are less without them. How they shape us as people is demonstrated by the Moon King and the loss of his and the new “memories” he receives at the end.
Monkey’s identity is obvious from the start with the biggest clue being both are voiced by Theron. Even if you fail to notice that there are subtle visual clues such as similar facial scars. Beetle’s identity though is a bit more of a mystery since we lack the vocal clues and given we know nothing about him we can believe his assumption on his own identity. The clues though come from the fragmented details of what we know about the larger than life Honzo.
The environments in this film are very detailed. The way light reflects or tiny details in clothing, there is so much you cannot see it all the first time. The people at Laika are not just filmmakers but artists. Their goal is as much to make something successful as it is beautiful.
It took me a bit to get this but I feel it is important to mention. The shamisen is a three stringed instrument and by the end of the film all three strings are broken much like Kubo’s immediately family. During the confrontation Kubo restrings the instrument with a piece of his mother’s hair, his hair, and the bowstring of his father. The title of the film is Kubo and the Two Strings. It made no sense since it referenced nothing including the three stringed instrument. But, in fact, it does. Kubo is one string with his parents being the other two and this is symbolized in the moment the instrument is restrung.
This is a film for adults as well as older children. It might be a bit much for the very young. Especially when Kubo’s aunts finally arrive in the story. They are not watered down in appearance. They are intense and frightening and blatantly murderous. These are as frightening as many horror film monsters.
Kubo and the Two Strings is an amazing film. It is a mature work of animation with complexity and feeling. You will love it from beginning to the end. Watch it!