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Laika Entertainment animation studios has slowly built a reputation as one of the best in stop-motion feature films, and deservedly so. With Coraline and the Box Trolls serving as excellent examples in the genre, they once again bring to the screen a highly imaginative and curious work that is a feast for the eyes, but better yet, challenges its audience, especially its younger aged target with a thoughtful story and enchanting style. It’s easily one of the best films of the year.
An original story (by Shannon Tindle, and written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler), it tells of a young Japanese boy who, as a baby, had one eye taken from him by the Moon King, his grandfather, and the Sisters, his aunts. He and his ill mother, a once powerful witch, live outside of a small town in a cave on top of a mountain. Every day, he travels to the village and performs musical stories with origami figures, telling tales of vengeful warriors battling great beasts, and every day he races home before dark so he won’t lose the other eye. He longs to see his father, now passed on, made all the more impressionable by the stories his mother tells of the late warrior’s adventures. But these are sorrowful sagas, and Kubo is a lonely boy.
Naturally, circumstances allow for Kubo to stay in the village a little too late, inciting the Moon King and Sisters to attack the town, and in a battle to protect him, his mother gives her son the power of flight and commands him to fly far away while she defends the village, using all her strength in a desperate sacrifice. Kubo flees, and when awakens later, he is in a blizzard, guarded by a little monkey named, well, Monkey, once a wooden charm made alive by Kubo’s mother. Monkey (Charlize Theron), vows to protect Kubo and lead him on a special quest, where along the way they eventually meet Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a skilled samurai claiming to have been mentored by Kubo’s father. Together, the three set out to find the three prized pieces of armor worn by Hanzo, Kubo’s father: The Armor Impenetrable, The Sword Unbreakable, The Helmet Invulnerable and return to face the Moon King. With these armaments lies Kubo’s only chance for victory, and so much more.
Directed by Travis Knight, Kubo and the Two Strings is a remarkable bit of storytelling, imaginative and colorful, but also intelligent and endearing. Kubo, voiced by Art Parkinson, is a character of great depth and humanity, one the animators and writers treat with respect. We are given time and trust to identify with the young boy and his plight, to become enchanted not just by the world he lives in but the world he creates. Monkey is also a delight, with Theron (who also voices Kubo’s mother) giving the comical character warmth and charm but also great humor, something that might be overplayed in a different production but it masterfully done here. McConaughey does well, too, but the relationship between him and Monkey doesn’t always work and the forced jokes don’t quite blend with the overall seriousness of the film’s plot. But it’s never enough to mar the experience.
Ralph Fiennes is the Moon King and delivers the acidic, familiar menacing tones he’s become so well known for, and it suits the character well. Rooney Mara on the other is hand is almost too frightening (a good thing) as the Sisters, voicing both of the twin girls, daughters of the Moon King. They are a delicious pair of dark evil, and Mara clearly is having some fun with them even if they might be just a little too much for youngsters. But that is also part of the success of why Kubo and the Two Strings is so rewarding. So richly presented, so lovingly crafted, it is a rare gem that captives and invites what any great film should, especially those aimed as younger audiences, imagination.
I hesitate to use the word magic in describing a film, a term spread far too liberally in trailers for movies from Disney, who make good films but over-do it with their self-promotion, but it is a word that easily comes to mind while watching Kubo and the Two Strings. There is an expectation when watching films like this, but it’s all the more so un-expected when you realize how much those expectations have been shifted by the time this movie reaches its end. While films today often make the journey in stories about the action and events within, Kubo wisely lets the characters have the greater impact instead and in doing so, make this something all the more special. It’s an honest film that doesn’t pull its punches, and it’s that commitment that earn it the high praise it deserves.
Director: Travis Knight
Writers: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler
Stars: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes