D: Travis Knight / 102m
Cast: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, Brenda Vaccaro, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
In Ancient Japan, a young mother, Sariatu (Theron), is washed ashore with her infant son, Kubo. She is fleeing her family: her father, the Moon King (Fiennes) and her two sisters (both Mara). Her sisters have killed her husband, Hanzo, and stolen Kubo’s left eye for their father; and now he wants Kubo’s other eye. The infant grows into a young boy (Parkinson) who looks after his mother by night, and by day, tells stories to the folk in the nearby village, and who uses the magic he’s inherited from his mother to animate pieces of paper to help tell his tales. Kubo is well-liked, but often he can’t finish his stories because he has to be back before sunset, or his aunts will find him.
When an Obon festival proves too tempting to miss, Kubo finds himself still near the village when night – and his aunts – descend. They attack him, but he’s saved by the intervention of his mother; later she succumbs to her sisters and Kubo is left alone… though not for long. He finds he has a companion on a trek to track down his father’s sword, armour and helmet. The companion is called Monkey (Theron), and she was once a little wooden snow monkey charm that Kubo carried with him everywhere. Now she acts as his guide and protector, as the pair set off to find Hanzo’s equipment. Along the way they meet Beetle (McConaughey), one of Hanzo’s apprentices, who agrees to go with them.
They find the sword in a cave full of bones, and cross the Long Lake in a boat woven together by leaves and thanks to Kubo’s magic. But they’re attacked by Sariatu’s sisters, just as Kubo attempts to retrieve the armour from the bottom of the lake. With only the helmet to be retrieved, the trio travel to Hanzo’s home where Kubo has a dream about an old man (Fiennes). Tricked into travelling to the village near where he lived, Kubo must face the Moon King alone, and find a way of avoiding the fates of his mother and father.
A vibrant, multi-layered fantasy adventure, Kubo and the Two Strings is animation company Laika’s fourth release, following Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014). With such a track record already firmly in place, the chances of Kubo… not adding to that run of successes seems unlikely, and on a critical level, so it proves. But in a year when animation has accounted for three of the top five grossing movies, Laika’s latest has stumbled at the box office, only just earning back its budget. And yet, it’s easily better than two of those three top grossing movies – Finding Dory and The Secret Life of Pets – and on a par with the third, Zootopia. With its impressive visuals, cleverly constructed storyline, and accessible characters, Kubo and the Two Strings is a triumph that brings together those aforementioned elements, and compliments them with style, originality and verve.
It’s all due to the script by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, and the efforts of first-time director Knight (he’s also Laika’s president and CEO). There’s such a richess of detail, both in the dialogue and the characters, that the visual backgrounds and their immediate surroundings don’t always register as the beautifully created world that said characters exist in. Ancient Japan has been witnessed in so many other movies over the years that it should be hard to bring a fresh perspective to the period and the milieu. But Laika’s expert team of animators – working with CGI and traditional stop-frame animation – achieve the movie’s distinctive look with ease, blending the two animation formats to perfection and helping the viewer immerse themselves in this beautiful yet dangerous environment.
The animators have done their homework too. The sisters’ fighting styles are straight out of several highly successful martial arts/wire-fu movies, and there’s a crispness to the movements of the characters when in combat that is both arresting and profound (if you think that’s a little over the top for an animated movie, then just watch the scene where the sisters attack the boat, and see just how much effort has gone into making their actions so intense and so precise, and so exciting). There’s also an energy in these scenes that doesn’t appear anywhere else in the movie, and while that may sound like a criticism, there’s nothing anyone could – or should – do about it. (And that goes for the eyes in the sea, one of the most remarkable visual effects seen in recent years.)
With its themes of loss and regret, and love and perseverance, the movie isn’t quite the children’s feature that some viewers may be expecting, but Laika have always been most impressive when introducing adult themes into their projects, and Kubo… is no exception. By adding depth to Kubo’s quest, and by introducing a layer of melancholy to it all, Knight and his team create a dynamic among the characters – good and bad – that can be appreciated by viewers of (nearly) all ages. It’s a delicate balancing act but one they pull off with unwavering conviction. And the way in which Kubo’s quest is resolved, and the Moon King’s threat is neutralised, it’s all accomplished in such a constructive, intelligent – and affecting – way that it offers viewers a much more satisfying conclusion all round.
As usual with a Laika production, the voice cast has been chosen with care. Theron brings a tenderness and subtlety to her performances that works perfectly for both characters, while McConaughey injects a mix of broad and pointed humour into his role as Beetle (even if his Southern drawl is allowed to slip through too often to maintain any consistency of voice). Parkinson effectively portrays the sadness and hopeful determination that combine to push Kubo ever forward, Mara essays the sisters as chilling echoes of each other, and Fiennes is formidable as the Moon King.
Rating: 9/10 – very minor quibbles aside, Kubo and the Two Strings is another triumph for Laika, and one of the very best animated movies of this or any other year; touching, poignant and thrilling, it features ravishing animation, terrifying villains, and speaks to the viewer on an emotional level that most live action movies fail to come even close to.