Release: Friday, August 19, 2016
Written by: Marc Haimes; Chris Butler; Shannon Tindle
Directed by: Travis Knight
Kudos to Kubo for being a wee bit different. I mean, generally speaking his story isn’t one you haven’t seen before — unless of course you’ve had since your diaper days an elaborate scheme for avoiding all things Disney for the rest of your life, which just seems . . . excessive. The latest from Laika Entertainment does, however, carry with it an air of sophistication and maturity absent in many of its competitors’ products.
Travis Knight, in his directorial debut, paints an emotionally resonant portrait of a family plagued by wickedness in ancient Japan, a family represented by the young Kubo (Art Parkinson) and his mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron) who we see at the beginning of the film barely escaping with their lives from an unseen confrontation with her evil Sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara) and Kubo’s grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who took one of Kubo’s eyes in an attempt to blind him to the world, a punishment that probably carries with it some sort of metaphorical meaning that I just can’t be bothered to delve into here (either that, or it’s just . . . I guess, glaringly obvious).
Anyhoo, Kubo now lives in a cave atop a big mountain just outside a village, to which he travels daily to put on shows for the locals. He tells tales of a brave samurai who has to defend himself against monsters, stories based on what he has heard from his mother about his missing father Hanzo, a legendary warrior. Kubo attracts large crowds with his showmanship, his ability to manipulate colored pieces of paper into ornate origami figures with his shamisen (a three-string guitar) as impressive as it is perplexing. If only he could just come up with a conclusion to the tale. Each evening he returns to the cave where his mother, who has fallen into a trance-like state, awaits. Most of the time she remains frozen in place like a statue. When she does speak she reminds her son to never stay out after dark as that is when her wicked Sisters and other evil spirits cast by the Moon King prowl, awaiting the chance to take Kubo’s other eye.
One evening Kubo attends an Obon ceremony, a Buddhist ritual in which the living are able to communicate with and celebrate the spirits of their deceased loved ones. Observed for over 500 years, it has evolved into a kind of family reunion tradition. In a display of visual grandeur that rivals anything Pixar has created in its 17-film history, we watch the screen burst into plumes of orange, red and yellow, the spirits rising from glowing lanterns to greet a sky filled with stars. It’s got my vote as one of the most spectacular scenes in any movie this year. A moment of pure wonderment swiftly transitions into one of terror as day turns to night and, sure enough, Kubo is confronted by those vicious aunts of his, determined to permanently blind him. Again, both literally and metaphorically. Mother intervenes, imbuing her son with some of her own magical power before making the film’s obvious Big Sacrifice.
The narrative promptly shifts gears and finds us deep into a blizzard, waking up next to a living version of his monkey trinket, also voiced by Theron. The two form an awkward, tough-love kind of bond and soon they set out across the desolate landscape, Kubo in search of three pieces of armor that will protect him against the evil spirits. They’re led by “Little Hanzo,” an origami man modeled after his father. Little Hanzo leads them to Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a warrior who was cursed into taking the form of an insect and who has no memory of his past. He learns quickly Kubo is actually the son of his master which obliges him to help Kubo in his quest to defeat evil.
Only after this shift does it become obvious how deliberately Knight has been setting up the story proper. We’re halfway into the movie before what we’ve actually come for gets underway. (The argument could be made the incredible blend of stop-motion animation with creative applications of magic, like Kubo’s origami ship and origami birds, justifies the price of admission.) At the heart of the film lies the familial conflict, a fairly standard clash of good and evil that forces a frightened but resourceful youngster into making big decisions and taking on forces much greater than himself. Guiding him along the way are his newfound friends, friends that ultimately prove they have much more to offer Kubo than moral support.
It takes time for all the pieces to fall into place. Significant world-building must happen before we get into the nitty gritty. It’s not just the elaborate staging of the saga that almost feels obsessive. If the thematic elements Kubo trades in are steeped in the beauty and mythology of Japanese tradition, artistic expression is driven by the pursuit of perfection. The level of detail in the visual aesthetic evokes the pride and passion of creators over at the prestigious Studio Ghibli. Such comparisons might seem extreme, but they’re not without caveats. Kubo is so intensely visual it’s as though nothing else matters.
Some things certainly do seem to matter more to the filmmakers than others as we work our way through this dark and dangerous journey. Not all aspects are created equal; the villains feel like a significant comedown from the stratospheric heights reached by Laika’s graphic artists. Reputable thespians like Mara and Fiennes don’t quite sell the evil convincingly. Even still, and despite a climactic showdown between Kubo and the Moon King ending the film on a whimper rather than a bang, this is still a story well worth investing time in, especially with your little ones. In the end though, you’ll probably leave the theater just like them: all googoo-gaga over some of the most sumptuous visuals you have ever seen.
Recommendation: Fairly heavy for a children’s movie as death lurks around every corner and reincarnation manifests as a prominent theme, but undeniably a quality experience for the whole family to share in, Kubo and the Two Strings rises above a few notable flaws thanks to an incredible animated style that gives rich texture to its culturally significant roots. The story falters towards the end but apparently never enough to divert attention to the fact this movie really should have featured Japanese dialogue if it was going for the whole ‘authenticity’ thing. Names like McConaughey, Theron, Fiennes and Mara actually become both enticing and distracting.
Running Time: 101 mins.
Quoted: “I encourage you not to die.”
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