Laika, the stop-motion animation studio that produced “Coraline”, “ParaNorman” and “The Boxtrolls”, continue to dazzle and push the boundaries of the genre. “Kubo & the Two Strings” isn’t flawless but still manages to amaze.
The film opens on a dark, moonless night. Kubo (Art Parkinson) is an infant, aboard a raft with his mother who is struggling to reach shore while a violent sea threatens to capsize them. They make it to the coast alive but his mother suffers a traumatic head injury. Quickly jumping ten years forward, we see Kubo and his mother have made their home within a cave on the same shore. They seem to have settled into a bittersweet routine each day. His mother awakens and stares off into the distance, while Kubo visits the nearby village and tries to scrounge up money, weaving magical stories using origami brought to life using his mother’s samisen. Each day, as soon as the sun begins to set, he rushes home. His mother has warned him to “never stay out past sunset” for fear his grandfather, the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), will find him. It was his Grandfather, and two evil sisters (Rooney Mara) who murdered his father, and stole one of Kubo’s eyes.
As is the case with all ominous nocturnal foreshadowing, Kubo does not make it home in time one night and is attacked. He narrowly escapes, but wakes up alone, in the snow, and guarded over by a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) She informs him sternly that he has only one chance for survival. They must locate three enchanted pieces of armor that will allow him to defeat the Moon King and evil night-sky sisters.
Oddly, after such an amazing opening, steeped in magic, lore and fascinating dialogue, this moment kicking off their journey is where the film falters. They are quickly joined by Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) a character that is rather annoying until he suddenly is not. This middle part of the story is surprisingly bland considering the world that has been crafted. Thankfully, this lull in plot isn’t fatal and the story quickly picks back up and treats us to a handful of epic fight scenes. (Especially when you remind yourself this isn’t pure CGI)
The amount of detail in “Kubo and the Two Strings” is amazing. Not just the detail, but the beauty of the world they’ve crafted. Subtleties abound; a rustling leaf, a trembling lip, a look of doubt that flashes across someone’s face. They all lend to making this enchanted world much more real. The 3D version of the film is also surprisingly effective. Shot in true 3D at a miniature scale, the effect is never gimmicky and actually enhances some scenes due to its immersive nature.
The overarching story of “Kubo” leaves a lot to be pondered, both positive and negative. The parable, Kubo’s relationships, and how he overcomes his adversaries is quite poetic. The opening line, “If you must blink, do it now” is repeated throughout the film, and takes on a deeper meaning each time as the meaning behind the loss of his eye is explained. Some may shout “Cultural Appropriation!” which certainly can’t be ignored, considering an Oregon based studio made a Japanese story using almost entirely white actors. (This is likely the reason George Takei receives such high billing even though his character seemed to have only a single line.) It’s not as simple as that though. The characters visually are of Asian descent and a lot of care and respect seems to be given to cultural references. It’s odd then when moments, particularly during stories of love lost or otherworldly battles, the film channels elements from “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” and “Big Trouble in Little China”, both specifically Chinese in nature. In the final act there are also a few plot points that don’t play fair. Without revealing too much, certain characters should, or shouldn’t, know certain things that are ignored for the benefit of propelling us towards the end of the story. It almost feels rushed, which is counterintuitive to the very nature of this movie. Then there is the matter of the final resolution of the Moon King, an element that raises a myriad of other philosophical and ethical questions.
A lesser film would have drowned under these issues, but everything else, every moment, every scrap of paper, every hand-placed fraction of a second, is exceptional. “Kubo” isn’t perfect, but it’s well worth watching.