MOVIE REVIEW: Kubo and the Two Strings



Laika Entertainment, the Portland-based and Phil Knight-backed stop-motion animation studio that brought you “Coraline,” “ParaNorman, and “The Boxtrolls” have outdone themselves with their newest effort.  “Kubo and the Two Strings” leaps off the screen with an original foreign folk tale that employs a rich originality and builds a strong base of emotional connection that rivals its Disney/Pixar contemporaries.  Everything about its surface is finely crafted and creatively awe-inspiring.  Who and what lies behind this film’s skin are its most egregious flaws that keep it from being a justifiable, full-fledged classic.

“Kubo and the Two Strings” takes place in the fantasy realms of Ancient Japan.  Kubo (Art Parkinson of “San Andreas”) is a boy of destiny guarded and groomed by his mother to learn her magic and become strong enough to survive.   Her intense magic is channeled through a special hand-crafted guitar.  The young boy with a crooked haircut and an eyepatch uses his thoughts, dreams, and own guitar-playing to bring to origami paper creations to life as the conduits of his beginning magic.  He employs those talents as a street-performing and story-telling bard that entertains the nearby townspeople.

Kubo longs to learn more about his father Hanzo, a famed samurai warrior, but his amnesiac mother’s drifting memories fail to give him full details.  What she can explain is that her vengeful twin sisters (voiced by Rooney Mara) and Kubo’s grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), will stop at nothing to take Kubo away to fulfill a dark family prophecy.  The only weapons and elements that can defeat them are the three golden artifacts that formerly belonged to Hanzo, namely his sword, helmet, and breastplate armor.

When the sisters find him and he becomes separated from his mother, a wooden monkey carving of Kubo’s is transformed into a living ape protector (Charlize Theron) that enables his escape.  Monkey pushes Kubo to begin the quest to find his father’s armor and blade to put an end to the sisters and the Moon King once and for all.  The two are soon joined by the jovial Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a skilled samurai archer and friend of Hanzo that has morphed into a six-legged man-insect amalgam.

True to Laika’s high aptitude for unique stop-motion animation, the final product is exceptionally gorgeous and brimming with aesthetic visual splendor.  Tracing inspiration from the Edo period of Japan from the 17th-19th centuries, the Tolkien-level wide-ranging geography balances natural-like realism with flourishes of artful exaggeration.  Zooming closer from the vistas and settings, the seemingly infinite layers of minute detail constructing each flesh-clad or folded-paper character’s presence, from their textured appearances to their molded movements, are nothing short of a technical and artistic wonder.  Words cannot do them justice.  Look behind-the-scenes to see the awesome genius of the Laika style.      

The mysticism and homespun mythology of “Kubo and the Two Strings” compose a wholly compelling and beautiful narrative fit for children over 8 and their discerning parental chaperones.  The team of debuting director and Laika CEO Travis Knight, story developer Marc Haimes, character designer Shannon Tindle, and screenwriter Chris Butler were the cooks in the kitchen that braised this mature and meaty fable.  Every demographic of this film’s audience will be able to gravitate to one or more of its many powerful themes.  Ranging from mother-son relationship dynamics and protective parental love to sensitive displays of humanity and mortality, each motif carries purposeful symbolism and could fill its own dissertation to celebrate their profoundness.

A bruising limitation was warned and now it rears its ugly head at the end.  There’s no way around it other than to say that “Kubo and the Two Strings” has to be called on the carpet for its whitewashed casting.  It is very understandable to see how names like Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, and Rooney Mara sell tickets.  All are excellent performers in their roles, especially Theron, but this is an Asian fairy tale of human characters, not ambiguous animals like the “Kung Fu Panda” series, and the only genuine names of diversity are veterans George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in throwaway bit parts.  There is a wealth of more-than-capable young and veteran acting talent from the proud nation of Japan that could have given this film an extra measure of dedicated and respectful cultural loyalty and validity.

LESSON #1: MAINTAINING THE MEMORIES AND SPIRITS OF THOSE WHO HAVE DEPARTED—One prevailing position of hope within this story is the literal and figurative spiritual energy of deceased family members.  Those of strong enough faith offer remembrances that connect them to those dearly missed.  In this fashion, death is a painfully open topic in this film.  Be ready, parents.

LESSON #2: PARENTAL SACRIFICES IN THE NAME OF LOVE—Through complete obligation and devotion, many parents put their children before themselves, pouring forth maximum unconditional love.  Couple this lesson with Lesson #1 and that power can span the grave, nudging the consciences of children forward who never forget that parental love.       

LESSON #3: FINDING THE RIGHT ENDING TO A STORY—Kubo was brought up on unfinished and fragmented bedtime stories of heroism battling darkness.  He recants them in his performances but never makes it to the ending.  When those historical family tales and his own foreshadowed destiny turn out to be true, Kubo seeks the defining meanings of what will be his true purpose.