Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) / Animation-Fantasy

MPAA Rated: PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril
Running Time: 101 min.

Cast (voices): Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, Brenda Vaccaro, George Takei
Director: Travis Knight
Screenplay: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler

Review published August 20, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings is the fourth, and arguably the best, of the big screen releases from the Oregon-based, mainly stop-motion animation studio, LAIKA Entertainment. It's the first to be directed by that company's president/CEO, Travis Knight, the former rapper turned animator who has put the studio on the map through the ingenious presentation of their inventive animation styles in an era where pure CG dominates, and also the care by which they build upon their stories. Although children will undoubtedly enjoy the LAIKA films, their output has, thus far, aimed at all ages -- adults with or without children may enjoy them just as much as the kids, and may also get more out of them because of the more mature thematic elements underneath each of their stories. As such, they are also quite costly to produce, and because they aren't built on easy commerciality, they don't make huge splashes at the box office, but, perhaps outside of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, they have built a brand loyalty that has fans around the world eagerly anticipating each new release from them, regardless of whatever the story may happen to be about.

Kubo is set in a fantasy version of medieval Japan, where we find young Kubo (Parkinson, San Andreas) spending his days using his elaborate magical origami constructions to spin beautiful stories of the heroism of his legendary father, the samurai Hanzo, to the people of his village, brought to life from the magic of his shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese lute. His evenings are spent with his melancholy mother hiding in seclusion in a cliff-side cave, who informs him of his own troubled youth after having to escape his murderous grandfather, The Moon King (Fiennes, Hail Caesar!), who took his left eye and wants his other, with help from his supernatural minion daughters, Kubo's Noh-masked witchy aunts. Eventually, their past comes home to find them, causing Kubo to go on a harrowing but heroic adventure, along with his protectors, the motherly mentor, Monkey (Theron, The Huntsman: Winter's War), and an insectoid amnesiac fighter named Beetle (McConaughey, Interstellar), to fulfill his quest of finding three samurai items imbued by magical properties -- an unbreakable sword, an impenetrable suit of armor, and an invulnerable helmet -- that belonged to his long-lost father.

It's a poetic piece, a folk tale built on many metaphorical elements that are more readily understood through interpretation rather than through trying to derive a literal meaning, willing to allow us to decide in the moment whether what we're seeing is the story's version of reality, or if it is more myth-within-the-myth for these fantasy characters. In one way, the film can be seen as the metaphor of animated storytelling itself, in which Kubo, like LAIKA as a filmmaking company, is bringing inanimate objects to life, making his origami paper change and flow to the needs of the narrative at any given moment.  In a more broad way, the film has resonant themes in mind in regard to death, anguish, grief, and moving on without forgetting the past, as well as the value of stories passed down from generation to generation, effectively keeping valued loved one's alive through the repeating of their stories.  The connection with one's past through these stories helps to heal the troubles of the present, and outlook on the future, as the families and villages flow like a river through time, each one building upon the mythology and awareness of the generations that come before, imparting them fully in the next as part of a pact to always keep them alive through the collective memory of their tales and traditions.

In this manner, viewers may be reminded of other interpretive works, such as The Wizard of Oz, if it were filtered through the lens of Hayao Miyazaki and his delicate handling of character over spectacle in his animation style, though this film definitely plays more toward western audiences than a more authentic attempt as spinning Japanese folklore would generally lend.  This one's a little more jokey than any of those (the Buzz Lightyear-esque Beetle character is the usual perpetrator), at least in somewhat modern-feeling dialogue, which may keep the film from transcending into greatness for those who find obvious injection of humor to be tacky in a film that plays like a serious fairy tale.  As with prior insular metaphors, the mix of old-fashioned and contemporary ways of telling its story is also in keeping with the way that LAIKA uses older forms of animation in concert with the new CG-oriented kind(including 3D printer technology), respectful of the traditions of those who came before, but also knowing that those storytelling techniques must change with the wants, needs and expectations of their audiences with each successive generation.  Gorgeously scored, beautifully voiced and meticulously detailed, Kubo is a wonderful and richly imagined presentation just from a craftsman standpoint, but it's also more than that. If there is a weak link at all, the story does begin to hit a bit of turbulence in trying to come up with a cataclysmic climax. Given that Kubo himself struggles as a storyteller in coming up with a satisfying conclusion to his own stories, this may be apropos.

Younger children may have a tougher time grasping the pacing and meaning of the somewhat sophisticated, metaphysical story, and may be challenged with some of the darker themes, especially given the lack of the modern-day comedic snark that permeates much of the fare aimed at their age group. However, the same can be said about most fairy tales, which use a great deal of thematic subtext to tell more telling stories for more mature audiences, while the children too young to fully grasp them because they lack the life experience, and who  merely enjoy them because they're full of fanciful creatures and events eerie, bizarre, magnificent or irreverent.  Because of this, fairy tales are stories that grow and evolve in the minds of the viewers as they mature, causing us to see things within them that we hadn't the ability to notice before, and eventually these tales become a cherished part of our own memories.  And like the traditions of those stories of old, we too will enjoy passing down the stories that enthralled us to our own children, capturing their eyes, ears, minds and hearts with tales of heroism, valor, heartache and healing. The emotionally stirring and intimate epic, Kubo and the Two Strings, is certainly worthy of such becoming such a time-honored fable.

Qwipster's rating:

2016 Vince Leo