Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) Review

Director: Travis Knight

Runtime: 101 minutes

Cast: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey, et al…

Plot (taken from IMDb): A young boy named Kubo must locate a magical suit of armor worn by his late father in order to defeat a vengeful spirit from the past.


 

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The latest from animation masters Laika Entertainment is another hit for the studio that brought you films such as ParaNorman and Coraline. In my opinion, Kubo and the Two Strings is the strongest film yet from the venerated studio, but it is held back by issues around the plot.

The film starts with a woman on a boat in an incredibly rough sea, plucking away at a three-stringed instrument imbued with magical powers. The sequence is dark and foreboding, backed up with a voiceover telling you to pay close attention. If you must blink, do it now, we are told. It’s pretty scintillating stuff. It’s edge of the seat stuff, right at the start of the movie. We are shown what great power the instrument possesses – it can control the waves for example – but it all gets a bit much, crashing the woman and the boat under the waves into a rock, head first. We then see that the woman was carrying a baby on her back, crikey, that was close.

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Fast forward and we are shown that the mysterious woman and child were indeed the heroes of our tale. Kubo (Art Parkinson), now over a decade old, is the carer for his mother, who has developed brain damage and struggles to remember much. It’s a deep issue for a family film, but an issue that can affect any number of families. Kubo, like his mother, is a natural-born storyteller. Wielding the mighty magical instrument, he whips crowds into a frenzy with his animated tales of samurai, monsters and journeys. Much to the annoyance of the crowd however, he can never end his magical tales. This is because he cannot be out after dark.

According to his mother, Kubo must never be out after dark, as his evil aunties will hunt him down and cause havoc to all in their way. They are after his other eye, after taking his first one when he was young. Family matters can be quite extreme, but I’ve never heard of mothers hiding their children from aunties who want to rip out their eyes. Someone, call Childline! In a rather tender moment, Kubo stays out after dark, taking part in a spiritual tradition of the passing of souls, trying to speak to his father. It’s touching stuff, but then all hell breaks loose as his aunties come after him. It’s tense, exciting filmmaking.

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Following this encounter with his devilish aunties, Kubo is sent on a mystical journey to find a set of armour, a helmet and an unbreakable sword to vanquish his foes and keep his second eye. It’s all pretty spectacular from here, to be honest. Kubo’s quest is long and hard, but he picks up a few friends along the way to make it easier. Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) provide the film with constant fun, and a nicely developed story of their own alongside Kubo’s. For a film with such a dark opening, Kubo and the Two Strings is filled with comedy, with Theron and McConaughey playing off each other wonderfully. It’s surprisingly hilarious, yes, but Kubo is about the adventure.

Laika’s unique stop-motion techniques combine with some outlandish visual design and CGI to create an animated film full of beauty, wonder and magical moments. It’s a stunning film, the marvelous adventure providing the perfect backdrop for the movie’s spectacular visuals. No matter the situation, Kubo never fails to look mind-bogglingly stunning. It’s poignant moments are backed up by beautiful imagery. Its darker moments are delivered by awe-inspiring images of screen-filling monsters and lush lighting that put other films to shame. The amount of effort and love put into the making of this film is there for all to see. It oozes charm, character and magic. It’s a shame then, that like Kubo himself, the filmmakers weren’t that great at ending their wonderful, magical tale.

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The ending feels a little lacklustre compared to the rest of the film. I think this is because the motivations of the antagonists never seemed terrible to begin with. They want Kubo’s other eye. Okay. Is that the end of the world? Sure, being blind would be terrible, especially in an era without proper health care. There are plenty of people out there leading perfectly happy lives without being able to see. I don’t believe that being blind would be the worst thing to ever happen to you, nor take away your ability to see the happiness in the world. It’s a shame, as it takes away from the film’s impact. The plot would’ve worked the same, but with a greater sense of danger if those after Kubo were after his life, rather than his sight.

Summary:

This holds Kubo and the Two Strings back from being an absolute masterpiece, however, rather than ruin the film beyond recommendation. It’s a beautifully animated, wonderfully written family adventure film full of magical moments, touching scenes and exciting set-pieces. Laika have outdone themselves with Kubo and the Two Strings in what very well could be 2016’s best.

4.5/5

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