Bet your origami can’t do this.
Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson) provides for his sickly mother by telling stories in a local Eastern village, but he always returns to her before nightfall. When he accidentally misses the long-standing curfew, a force of vengeance discovers his whereabouts and comes for him, but his mother sacrifices herself to save him. Joining forces with a wise talking monkey (voice of Charlize Theron) and a strange yet loyal beetle man (voice of Matthew McConaughey), Kubo must avoid dark spirits and defeat terrible monsters to discover the fate of his famous samurai father…and why Kubo should be very afraid of the Moon King (voice of Ralph Fiennes).
Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls preceded this current production from stop-motion animation studio Laika, so the quality of both the imagery and storytelling are already an expectation. From the first trailers, Kubo and the Two Strings was clearly grounded in Far East myth and traditions, giving it a distinctive look and feel, but the story seemed fleeting. The best reason for the concealment has to do with the secrets of the film and the unfolding story within a story, but Laika has never failed to deliver the goods and their latest is no exception.
As promised, Kubo and the Two Strings is a fluid tale full of magic, discovery, and secrets. The filmmakers use CGI tricks and computer controls these days to expand and enhance their stop-motion universe, but the look and texture of the filmed models is still unique in its appearance when compared to all-CG animation. Characters take over as the style pulls you into their story world, archetypes with specific roles to fill in Kubo’s hero’s journey, but no one is exactly who or what they appear, similar to a technique employed in the Robin Williams’ film What Dreams May Come. There is no coincidence and are no accidents in Kubo’s world, so if you see something on the screen, you can be sure it’s important.
If there is one thing that can be said that works against the film, it’s the loving way the footage showcases the art and design. If you enjoy that sort of thing, you won’t mind the long look of the presentation; if that’s not your cup of Ming tea, don’t be surprised if it feels like the film is dragging through non-story visuals (although not quite a Star Trek: The Motion Picture level of dragging). The voice cast is spot on — yes, even Matthew McConaughey — but it’s hard to say more without giving significant story points away. While there is plenty of humor and camaraderie, a looming threat is ever-present throughout the production that feels dangerous in that so-much-worse-than-death kind of way. The ending is as steeped in symbolism as all the rest, so the conclusion doesn’t so much surprise but rather ends the way it should.
Unlike the zany cartoonish violence of The Secret Life of Pets and the lost-in-the-big-city elements of Zootopia, Kubo leans toward Moana in feeling intimate and personal… and with a whole lot of traveling all over the place. The darker elements of the film may be scary for very young viewers (and a bit uncomfortable for imaginative adults, too) but is otherwise family friendly. Laika doesn’t do sequels, but Kubo’s story is the kind that reaches a satisfying conclusion while still leaving a bit of wonder as to who its hero will become — and that’s never a bad thing.
4 Skull Recommendation Out of Four