Laika Studios has emerged as one of the most unique group of creators working in Hollywood right now, after releasing a number of critically-acclaimed films in Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. With their latest stop-motion animated adventure though, Kubo and the Two Strings, the studio has not only given us their largest, and most ambitious outing to date, but also their most beautiful and profound, filled to the brim with the kind of adventure, action, heart, darkness, and terror that every lasting children’s film needs, but few seldom strive for nowadays.
Opening with a prologue that is practically guaranteed to induce chills from those watching, Kubo and the Two Strings follows its titular one-eyed boy (voiced brilliantly by Game of Thrones‘ Art Parkinson) as he works every day to bring home enough money to take care of himself and his mostly-catatonic mother, who goes in and out of lucidity. To do this, Kubo uses the power of storytelling, bringing to life pieces of paper on the streets of his village to tell a story of his father, Hanzo the Samurai who fought the Moon King in his journey to acquire all three pieces of a magical armor, and who sacrificed himself in his final moments to save the last eye of his son.
The audience in the film, and those sitting in the theatre, watch in understandably rapt attention as Kubo brings his origami paper pieces to life on the streets, and wail in equal disappointment when, like his mother, Kubo never is able to finish his story, always having to rush home before sundown and keep under cover with his mother, away from the Moon King’s gaze. Predictably and in necessary fashion though, Kubo eventually stays out too late, alerting the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and his evil twin aunts (voiced by Rooney Mara with creepy perfection) of his presence and is forced to go on the run after his mother sacrifices herself for him.
Shortly afterwards, Kubo is joined on his journey by Monkey (Charlize Theron), who is an old talisman brought to life with the last of his mother’s magic, and who informs him that in order to beat the Moon King, he will have to find and assemble all of the pieces of his father’s magical armor. Along the way, they meet Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a Samurai who has forgotten his past, but knows he must help Kubo succeed in his quest, in order to honor his former master, Hanzo. Both Monkey and Beetle act as the perfect, dueling voices of wisdom for Kubo throughout the film, with Theron bringing a curt, parental tone to her every order, while McConaughey brings a zany, forgetful joy to his.
Some of the dialogue and character introductions for both Monkey and Beetle can feel stunted at times, though once the trio get fully going on their quest it’s hard to think of a group of characters this year who have had quite the same kind of enjoyable chemistry that these three have, which should speak volumes to not only the actors’ performances, but also to the beauty and detailed elegance that Laika uses to bring them to life. The comedy never misses and their ability to jump from being annoyed with each other, to insanely protective, helps to echo the film’s emotional themes of family and the impacts that they can have on us, even if we might not notice them all at first.
The film’s pacing manages to both take its time, and sprint through an entire Samurai fable in its one hour and forty-one minute-long run time, without ever being bogged down in exposition or action. This marks Laika CEO Travis Knight’s directorial debut, and with it he has not only made the studio’s most emotionally-authentic and epic films to date, but also their most technically elegant as well. The animation will astound you, but never more than its emotion or story will.
It’s here where I should mention how incredible this film’s action is as well, with one particular sequence on a boat made of leaves standing out as one of the best action sequences I’ve seen this entire year, animated and otherwise. It’s the kind of emotionally-charged and dynamically-directed scene that would act as a fitting climactic sequence for most summer blockbusters, but in Kubo and the Two Strings, only takes way a little over halfway into its run time. It was one of the many, many moments watching the film that I felt goosebumps forming on my arms by just how honest-to-God epic it was.
Maybe Kubo‘s greatest achievement though, is how it manages to be a family film for actually everyone in the family, respecting not only to the young viewers who will watch it, but the adults who will take them to it. The Moon King states that the best way to live is to be blind to the atrocities of the world that lie before us, but Kubo attempts to prove that the opposite is true, not only with its gorgeous visuals and colors, but with lovable characters and emotions that feel authentic, real, and above all else, true. This, I imagine, will go down in history as one of the greatest achievements in the stop-motion field, and it’s not hard to see why either.
“If you must blink, do it now.” Those are the opening words of Kubo and the Two Strings, and not only do they promise a great adventure lying ahead, but one that the film manages to live up to it as well, giving us one of the best films of the year so far that helps to bring this mostly-disappointing summer season to a long-awaited end in memorable fashion. The summer of 2016, frankly doesn’t deserve Kubo and the Two Strings, but we can all be thankful that we got it anyways.
Kubo and the Two Strings is set to hit theatres on August 19th.
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