Four stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity and scary moments
By Derrick Bang
It’s extraordinarily difficult to replicate the look, atmosphere and ambiance of an entirely difficult culture, and yet the Oregon-based Laika animation studio has done just that, with Kubo and the Two Strings.
Director Travis Knight and a trio of writers — Shannon Tindle, Marc Haimes and Chris Butler — have concocted what feels like an authentic Japanese folk tale, laced with fantastic characters and a little boy who is, himself, a purveyor of stories. The stop-motion animation style will be recognized by fans who adored previous Laika efforts, such as Coraline and ParaNorman, but in this case with an added twist: This new film’s look is inspired by origami and classic Japanese woodblock printing.
The action takes place in a colorful realm of rough-hewn sawtooth patterns, strong linear striations and bold but simple colors, all inspired by the work of woodblock masters such as Kiyoshi Saito and Katsushika Hokusai. The resulting texture — the apparent “feel” of the images — is truly lovely, and unlike anything else we’ve seen from today’s panoply of animation studios.
But of course style cannot be paramount; it must serve the story. That’s absolutely the case here, as we quickly become immersed in an otherworldly narrative with the mythic authenticity of a Hayao Miyazaki fable.
“If you must blink, do it now,” we’re cautioned, as this saga begins. “If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.”
Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a popular street urchin who lives near a fishing village in ancient Japan, and survives by enchanting townspeople with wild tales of samurai warriors and mythical creatures, all brought to life via origami figures created magically when he plays a guitar-like shamisen. The coins collected are sufficient to buy food and meager supplies for both Kubo and his mother; they live in a cave on a high cliff that overlooks the vast ocean.
Kubo’s mother slips in and out of awareness, suffering from trances that are governed by the rising and setting of the moon. This condition has persisted ever since the perilous ocean journey that brought her and the then-infant Kubo to this land. Worse yet, the boy is missing his left eye, the orb — we’re told — having been plucked out by his grandfather, the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).
During her cognizant moments, Kubo’s mother speaks lovingly of her absent husband, a warrior who lost his life defending his family from the Moon King. And more than anything else, she cautions, Kubo must never, ever linger outside after dark.
Fantasy fans who remember 1984’s Gremlins will smile knowingly, at this admonition. “Don’t give him any water,” that young lad warned, “[and] the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he begs, never feed him after midnight.”
Inevitably, that gremlin (Gizmo) was exposed to both water and late-night snacks.
Just as inevitably, Kubo will get caught in the village, after sunset.
When it happens, he’s immediately attacked by two way-creepy mystical sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara) whose faces are concealed behind implacable ivory masks. Their very appearance is flat-out scary, in the same soulless way that the “Other Mother” frightened the heroine in Coraline.
Rescued by a burst of magic from his mother, Kubo winds up in a mystical realm where his carved wooden monkey figurine has come to life as a full-size protector. This “Monkey” guardian is strict, impatient and armed with a wonderfully dry sense of humor: an emotional complexity delivered deftly by Charlize Theron.
Monkey helps Kubo learn more of his back-story: that his mother once terrorized mankind alongside her two evil sisters and their father, the Moon King, but renounced such malevolent ways after encountering — and falling in love with — the samurai warrior who became Kubo’s father. And Kubo has been sent to this enchanted realm so that he might recover the coveted items left behind by his father: the Sword Unbreakable, the Armor Impenetrable, and the Helmet Invulnerable.
Only thus outfitted, will Kubo be able to prevent — once and for all — the Moon King from snatching his remaining eye.
The quest therefore defined, Kubo and Monkey set off. They’re quickly joined by a tiny origami samurai, wordless but with the apparent ability to find the three mystical objects; and the somewhat addled Beetle, a massive samurai insect (Matthew McConaughey).
Beetle, for all his fighting prowess, is persistently dazed and confused: unable to remember his origins, or the full extent of his abilities. Monkey doesn’t trust him, and their bickering becomes a source of constant eye-rolling by Kubo, and a delight for us. McConaughey’s line deliveries are hilarious, particularly during Beetle’s efforts at humor; the actor brings quite unexpected depth to this wildly improbable creature.
The subsequent adventure is exciting and perilous, with all sorts of challenges to be overcome. It’s also rather dark, somewhat morbid and occasionally heartbreaking: as with the current revamp of Pete’s Dragon, another fantasy saga with a strong element of pathos. Granted, classic heroic quests always involve misfortune, but parents might want to think twice before bringing very young children to this one.
The voice talent is excellent throughout, with McConaughey and Theron the notable standouts. George Takei, Brenda Vaccaro and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa perform villagers who are entertained by Kubo’s performances, and the boy has Scheherazade’s flair for leaving his audience wanting more: one of many clever touches by this film’s scripters.
Although this film was designed for its 3D cinematography, that element seems superfluous (and, frankly, pointless). The animation style actually looks better in conventional (flat) 2D.
The story builds to a suspenseful climax, with a couple of clever surprises along the way (not least of which is the explanation for the “two strings” in the film title). The animation is impressive throughout, as has been the case with all Laika features. This is Knight’s debut in the director’s chair, after having been lead animator on ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls; he and editor Christopher Murrie maintain a brisk pace, deftly balancing action with exposition.
Dario Marianelli’s soundtrack functions on two levels: both as atmospheric underscore, and also as the string-oriented “source music” by which Kubo brings his origami creations to life. I’ve always appreciated film composers who make a point of including character themes that become familiar as the story progresses, and Marianelli supplies a strong “family” melody that accompanies each revelation concerning Kubo, his mother and father, and their shared history.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a lovely, lyrical fantasy with a strong cultural foundation that amplifies its degree of enchantment. Folk tales — whether ancient or newly created — always make great yarns, and this one’s no exception.