Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Be Bold. Be Brave. Be Epic.

Over the years Laika have (to some degree) authenticated themselves as the idealists of the mainstream animation world — sticklers for their craft, so to speak — their evocative style and idiosyncratic sights repeatedly met with deep corresponding content, their pics being a skilfully balanced blend of light vs dark: and their latest feature (fourth to be precise), Kubo and the Two Strings, is certainly no exception. With Laika returning to original materiel after 2014’s body-horror flick The Boxtrolls (based on Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters!), Kubo and the Two Strings marks the directorial debut for the company’s president/ CEO Travis Knight, who served as lead animator on their initial trio of films.

Don't stand in monkey's way
Don’t stand in monkey’s way

Set in a fantastical ancient Japan — a realm of gods and monsters — our tale begins on a stormy moonlit night with a prelude that sees a fraught woman narrowly outrun a sea of roaring waves. Fast forward a decade or so and enter Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a kind-hearted, sagacious street urchin who resides with his waning regal mother on a seaside cliff overlooking a small fishing village. Mother however — injured years earlier in the film’s opening ocean ‘battle’ — has trouble remembering her past and, during the night, often falls into deep mystical trances which seem to be governed by the rising and setting of the moon. All the while the eyepatch-wearing Kubo — when not caring for his mom — ekes out a living by spending his days busking in the seaside settlement, enthralling townsfolk with an impassioned saga of daring heroics and high adventure (this foreshadowing his own soon-to-be crusade), Kubo creating a dazzling display of animated origami to liven up the yarn using the power of his cherished shamisen — a traditional three-stringed banjo-like instrument that magically breathes life into pieces of brightly colored ‘washi.’

This relatively peaceful existence though, is soon shattered when Kubo breaks his curfew, ignoring his mother’s warnings by foolishly venturing out into the night, accidentally summoning a malicious spirit, which roars down from the heavens and destroys the nearby town. Determined to enforce an age-old vendetta, this ancient evil reignites a sleeping family feud, thrusting Kubo into a thrilling quest, the young boy forced to uncover his past, reunite his family and fulfill his destiny, Kubo forging new friendships along the way — our hero compelled to team up with a stern wood carving ‘monkey’ come to life (voiced by Charlize Theron) and an idealistic amnesiac samurai insect who claims to have once been a valiant human soldier (Matthew McConaughey supplying the vocals). Pursued by his demonic twin aunts (voiced by Rooney Mara) and ‘immortal’ grandfather Moon King (voiced by Ralph Fiennes), Kubo and his loyal newfound allies set out to solve the mystery of his fallen father, Hanzo, the greatest warrior the land had ever known, by retrieving his legendary sought-after items: The Armor Impenetrable, The Sword Unbreakable, and The Helmet Invulnerable.

Part samurai, part insect, and all worrier.
Part samurai, part insect, and all worrier.

Another whimsical vision from the innovative animation house Laika, filmmakers and craftspeople have (this time) turned to Japanese mythology and spirituality for influence, Kubo and the Two Strings steeped with oriental awe and wonderment, standing as an aesthetically lavish sensory delight; however with seeded themes of loss, healing, betrayal and filial devotion, the flick may prove to be a little too deep, dark or frightening for youngsters, even if its poignant heart is set firmly in the right place. And these underlying messages are made all the bleaker add the film’s mild violence, foreboding vistas and fearsome villains. That said, our canvas is still full of sprightly action, soaring escapades and kid-friendly larks, the banter between Kubo’s goofy man-bug sidekick ‘Beetle’ and no-nonsense mother-like protector ‘Monkey’ providing much of the levity.

With a screenplay by Marc Haimes, Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word (2016), and Chris Butler, ParaNorman (2012) — based on a story developed by animator Shannon Tindle and co-writer Haimes — Kubo and the Two Strings strives to explore the lore (and art) of storytelling, the narrative often fitting ‘fables into fables’ while slickly hinting that all stories are somehow interconnected, the end of one merely being the start of another. The film also seeks to affirm stories — which can endure, growing in power and meaning — as the lifeline to the soul, suggesting that, to keep something alive forever (to immortalize it, so to speak) all one simply needs to do is tell that thing’s story (be it person, place or object), this continuing its legacy for generations to come: compelling stuff indeed.

This monkey is about to go Baboom!
This monkey is about to go Baboom!

Smoothly integrating CGI with stop-motion, the hybrid of techniques supplies a ravishing backdrop for this rich otherworldly tale; the artwork a clear love letter to Eastern culture, evocative of Japanese woodblock printings inspired by the works of master artists Katsushika Hokusai and Kiyoshi Saito. And hey, one can’t avoid comparing the expressive dream-like imagery to the vision of Hayao Miyazaki, which the flick artfully cites. Each frame is brimming with detail: be it the intense and radiant patterns, delicately refined models and maquettes or textured landscapes. Either way, the film looks utterly spectacular. A scene that sees our heroes plunge into the ominous depths of an underwater eyeball ‘garden’ is visually haunting whilst an encounter with a gargantuan blood-soaked skeleton in the stunningly realized Hall of Bones is brimming with bash. Elsewhere the fragile ‘paper’ designs — from a sailboat made up of dry leaves, to the dainty one-sheet sculptures — feel wonderfully organic and look as though they could fall apart or break away at any given moment.

With stellar voice talent on board — including the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar (2014), and Charlize Theron, The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016), in supporting roles — the cast of scintillating ‘champions’ is remarkably fresh, each unorthodox character carving a unique fold into this many-sided cinematic sheet — whether it’s Monkey’s apt insight or Beetle’s (albeit often misplaced) quirky humor, these guys are the backbone of Kubo’s passage and aid in driving the narrative forward in a natural way. Be that as it may, when it comes to the antagonists however, this is sadly not the case, these one-note baddies — apart from looking ‘hella cool,’ particularly the serpentine Moon Beast — having little in the way of development (lacking motivation in particular) and serving as nothing more than roadblocks in an otherwise bountiful odyssey.

'Let me samurais this for you ...'
‘Let me samurais this for you …’

Given its somewhat cryptic title, don’t expect Kubo (and his Two Strings) to spoon-feed the audience: this folks is simply not that type of film. Even in a year of notable toons — think the politically charged Zootopia or adult-centered Sausage PartyKubo and the Two Strings still stands on its own two feet, Laika — with its ground-breaking blend of art meets science — once again steering the medium in the right direction (away from those tired shared universes or singing/ dancing hairs and whiskers) whilst steadily pushing the boundaries of contemporary filmmaking. With astute direction and cutting-edge visuals, Kubo and the Two Strings is a compelling, melancholic and thought-provoking entertainer … though, I wouldn’t bank on kids digging this one half as much as their parents. As a final note, be sure to stick around for Regina Spektor’s terrific rendition of The Beatles’ ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps,’ which strums during the film’s closing creds.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by S-Littner

Kubo and the Two Strings is released through Universal Pictures Australia