FILM REVIEW – KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS. With the voices of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei. Written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler. Directed by Travis Knight. Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril. 101 minutes.
Even in a year that has seen some creative and entertaining animated films, KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS would be a standout. Borrowing from Japanese folktales, anime, medieval woodblocks, and even origami (decorative paperfolding), it draws you into its story of young Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson) and his quest.
When we first meet Kubo, he’s living in a cave with his mother for reasons that only slowly become clear. It turns out they live near a village where Kubo entertains people with his magical tales. His mother insists he must be home before nightfall and when he fails to return on time one night, we learn why: he is being pursued by his aunts who are acting on behalf of his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). They have already killed his father, a samurai.
He goes off to recover his father’s magical armor, accompanied by Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a warrior Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Along the way they encounter monsters and other challenges leading to–and no real spoiler here–Kubo having to face his grandfather. As with most such animated features, there’s enough scariness that parents of very young or sensitive children may wish to take note, but most kids should have no problem with it. What makes this special is that it’s also engaging for adults, and not simply by putting in topical references and in-jokes.
The stop-motion animation is quite beautiful and seamless here. Laika Entertainment seems to avoid having a “house style” so while there are thematic links in their movies, each one has it’s own look. Laika has favored the dark and macabre in their animation, and whether their previous films–like “Corpse Bride,” “Coraline,” “Paranorman,” and “The Boxtrolls”–worked is a matter of opinion. (This reviewer liked only “Paranorman.”) With “Kubo,” though, they have gone to a new level. Instead of making what seemed to be intended as a Halloween special, they have created an adventure that transrends its weird elements. We marvel at the magic, but our focus is on Kubo, a boy trying to find his place in the world. It’s that combination of animation design and story that makes “Kubo” stand out.
Finally, it should be noted that someone will undoubtedly accuse the film of “cultural appropriation,” a trendy criticism which suggests artists are not to look to other cultures beyond their own for inspiration. Yet Shakespeare in England did plays like “Two Gentlemen of Verona” set in Italy, the Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone made westerns, and Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki made films set in Europe. It’s what artists do.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is that rare late summer film that will stay with you long after the leaves start to turn.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.