Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Starring- Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey
Director- Travis Knight
PG- thematic elements, scary images, action and peril
Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson) lives in a cave by the sea, making a living telling the local villagers stories with his magical origami and caring for his mother (voice of Brenda Vaccaro), whose damaged mind only allows her a few hours of lucidity every night. On the occasions that her memory returns, she too spins fantastic tales of Kubo’s long-passed father and his heroics in protecting his family from the evil Moon King (voice of Ralph Fiennes), who supposedly stole Kubo’s eye. There’s only one problem — the stories are all true. There is a Moon King, and he is determined to find Kubo and steal his remaining eye.
When Kubo breaks one of his mother’s seemingly arbitrary rules, the Moon King’s underlings, the Sisters (voice of Rooney Mara) find him. The boy ends up stranded in the wilderness, pursued by the sisters, his only chance at salvation a quest to reunite a magical suit of armor. Along with two new companions — Monkey (voice of Charlize Theron), a fiery spirit guardian of sorts, and Beetle (voice of Matthew McConaughey), a half-man/half-insect with few memories other than that he used to serve Kubo’s father as a samurai — Kubo sets on a journey across the world to save his family.
The trailers that played in front of Kubo and the Two Strings were for Storks, which seems as though it may be more aptly titled Stuff Happening: The Motion Picture; Monster Trucks, which does not appear to have been developed any further than the pun that inspired it; Trolls, which looks like standard DreamWorks in all the worst ways; and The Wild Life, which I’m not convinced is even real. (And Queen of Katwe, but that doesn’t fit my narrative, so shut up.)
In short, the first fifteen minutes of my theatrical experience was a tour of Children’s Cinema 2016 in all its manic, shouty, awkward slang-heavy, “hip,” pop music-infused, subversive glory. And it provided quite the stark contrast to the feature film, as well as a potent reminder of how badly we needed it.
After all of that, Kubo and the Two Strings, its gravity, its poetry, its sincerity and full-heartedness, its tactile and lovingly hand-crafted visuals, its intelligence, its story focus, was nearly jarring. Remember when children’s films were taken seriously? They weren’t always great, or even good, but they tried to tell stories, tried to build worlds, tried to stoke the imaginations of their young audiences, tried to impart lessons that would follow them into adulthood. Remember when a story for children could have stakes and consequences? When they could be a little scary or emotionally intense sometimes? When they had faith in the ability of children to engage with them on a deeper level?
Kubo and the Two Strings sure does. And that’s a big part of the reason why it’s far and away the best summer movie of 2016, and one of the year’s best films more generally.
As someone who’s been following the evolution of Laika as an animation studio with some interest but an increasing worry that its movies were getting progressively worse, Kubo and the Two Strings comes as great relief. I’m not at all prepared to decide whether it’s better than Coraline, and it seems that neither is film culture as a whole, but the fact that we can even have that debate is reason enough to recommend it wholeheartedly. If nothing else, Laika here continues advancing the art of stop-motion animation to the point of sheer madness — the visuals here are complex, fluid, detailed, textured, and beautiful; it’s incomprehensible to me that all this was done by hand. I’ve heard that Laika used twenty-thousand — twenty-thousand! — detachable pieces to create Kubo’s facial expressions. I’ve heard complaints that the studio has reached the point where its animation is now almost indistinguishable from CGI, but I disagree. I would say the studio has achieved the strengths of computer animation — chiefly, its fluidity in motion — without running into its major weakness — its tendency to look sterile when the design isn’t working (and even, sometimes, when it is). Kubo and the Two Strings is graceful like computer animation, but it feels lived-in, like the world is a real place with real houses and trees and mountains and dirt. The texture isn’t an approximation; it’s real. It’s essentially stylized live-action. It’s gorgeous, and an absolute must on the big screen for that reason alone.
And even then, it’s not so much the animation as what it captures. Kubo and the Two Strings is a spiritual successor to the films of Hayao Miyazaki in its visual imagination, from Kubo’s deft and colorful origami performances to the weird and incredible monsters our heroes encounter on their journey. The movie is filled to bursting with extremely striking images, chief among them the Sisters, who for sheer presence are the creepiest and most intimidating movie henchmen since the Ringwraiths of The Fellowship of the Ring.
In every respect, Kubo and the Two Strings is a total original, capturing not only sights that have never been seen before but a fully realized and interesting mythology and a daring story that adheres to no easily identifiable formula — a story where what happens matters, where consequences can be permanent, where the status quo exists to be shattered, where the characters will inevitably find themselves somewhere other than where they started. It’s the only movie this summer to have surprised me in any meaningful sense — the lengths to which it goes and the intensity that it sometimes reaches would have been risky even the age when Disney was releasing animated films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I don’t know whether Kubo and the Two Strings will scare children — it’ll depend on the kid — but it will definitely confront them with some difficult concepts. And that’s okay — to a child, the world is difficult, and the stories we tell them are among the ways in which we help them deal with that.
Kubo and the Two Strings gets mighty philosophical from time to time, and I’m so glad it does. It enters dark territory but doesn’t dwell there and approaches it with a measured sort of optimism. It’s really a film about mortality, particularly the way we cope with the loved ones we’ve lost, but it also approaches death from the perspective of children just now beginning to understand the concept and realizing that it will happen to them someday. It’s about the here and now and what makes it special, even though it doesn’t last forever.
And it’s about the power of storytelling, not only as a means by which we contextualize our experiences and the experiences of others but as a way that we preserve the memory of those who have passed on before us. In so doing, it gets into territory that I find very subjectively fascinating — the abstract nature of the past and what a memory is (outside of the biological reality, I mean) and the way it so thoroughly defines everything about our world without actually existing in a tangible sense. It’s the idea that maybe we’re all living in Dark City and aliens programmed the totality of our experiences into our brains while we were sleeping last night — we wouldn’t actually know this had happened, but it would still define us. I’m fascinated by the idea of a man who committed murder and then hit his head and forgot everything that ever happened to him — without the experiences that shaped him into a person who would commit murder, would he still do it? In a philosophical sense, would he even still be himself? By addressing the subject in that way, Kubo and the Two Strings is able to end on a moral like “a memory is the most powerful magic there is” without it seeming like fluffy kids movie BS. To the extent that memories define our world, make us who we are, and can change absolutely everything when understood in a different life, I suppose they are a kind of magic.
Basically, Kubo and the Two Strings doesn’t have an unoriginal bone in its body. Right now, it’s on track to be little more than a ripple at the box office, confirming once again that the number of people who complain about the film industry’s lack of original movies far exceeds the number of people who actually go and see the original movies it does make. Please, don’t allow Kubo and the Two Strings to pass without a sound — not only as a public service, to send a message that we want more of this, but because it’s worth seeing. It’s beautiful, visually and emotionally; it’s brilliant; it’s creative; it’s moving; it’s memorable; it’s one of the best movies of the year so far. Don’t miss it.