In a world where films seem to be becoming increasingly more identical by the day, it’s always fascinating to see something that strives to do something new and original. Kubo and the Two Strings is the latest stop-motion film from Laika (of Coraline and ParaNorman fame) and it is easily one of the most stunning and refreshing films to have graced the silver screen. From the moment it begins, it is clear that Kubo is an audiovisual masterpiece, but very quickly it becomes clear that Kubo is much more than a pretty face. With a narrative that deals with themes of death, loss, and storytelling in a very mature way, and characters that are immediately likeable and iconic; Kubo has quickly become in my mind the greatest animated film of the year so far, and almost certainly stands as one of the greatest films in general this year. It’s truly magical.
Kubo flies with the help of his origami birds. (Source)
Kubo and the Two Strings tells the story of young Kubo, a boy living with his ill mother in a cave atop a mountain. Every morning he gets his mother up and then he goes into the nearby village to tell stories to the villagers by manipulating paper into moving origami figures that move as he plays music on his shamisen (a stringed instrument in Japan). When the bell chimes, Kubo returns home to his mother who revives somewhat. After unwittingly ignoring her one warning not to stay outside after dark, Kubo is thrust into a quest to find three sacred items in order to take on the evil Moon King.
Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle face down a terrifying foe. (Source)
On the face of it, Kubo’s story is a simple one. It’s your typical Hero’s Journey and it is ultimately filled with numerous storytelling tropes. That said, Kubo presents its story in such an enchanting way that none of these tropes feel played-out. The main draw of Kubo’s narrative is in its deeper and darker elements. It isn’t afraid for its characters to be injured, it isn’t afraid to show blood, it isn’t afraid to talk about death and spirituality and the importance of memories. This melancholy tone is unusual for what seems to be a children’s film, but it shows that Laika refuse to talk down to their viewers. There are moments of humour sprinkled throughout, something the film even notes as a necessity in storytelling as the grandmotherly Kameyo tells Kubo to include a fire breathing chicken in his story to the villagers. The frequent discussions about how stories flow and how they should be brought to an end is also endlessly fascinating. In the end, you’ll feel emotionally invested in the characters, have a giggle at the jokes, be scared by the creepy and villainous Sisters, enjoy the brutal fights, and be whisked away by the magic that oozes from the film.
Kubo’s journey takes him through many beautiful locations. (Source)
Part of that magic comes from Kubo’s phenomenal visuals. The fact that the film is made via stop-motion with real models and puppetry is just mind-blowing (Seriously, just look at this video). As you watch it you’ll be amazed as everything moves so smoothly that it’s hard to believe it’s not CGI. The style is already gorgeous with its ancient Japanese aesthetic, but then you see the amount of detail in the characters and it’s enough to leave you in awe. Then you have the face that most of the locations in the film were also models as are the gigantic monsters and it’s clear that Kubo is a technical masterpiece. Once the models are blended with some CGI elements (the backgrounds mostly) to tie everything together, the result is one of the most beautiful animated films of all time, especially when it is in motion. The cinematography is outstanding as certain shots are like works of art and stand up there with the most beautiful shots in film of all time. The editing is outstanding too, with scenes flowing seamlessly into one another in a way that I haven’t been able to appreciate in a film for what feels like a long time. There really is no other word to describe Kubo’s visuals other than calling them a masterpiece.
And that’s not even talking about the phenomenal soundtrack composed by Dario Marianelli. Hitting a perfect balance between the Western orchestral sound we’ve grown used to in films while also using the classical Japanese instruments with respect and class is a difficult challenge, by Marianelli achieves it with aplomb. Whenever Kubo’s shamisen begins to play, the film becomes a work of synesthetic art as the visuals and music move in unison. For that very reason, the song ‘Story Time’ is a particular highlight as is ‘Origami Birds’, but there are no weak links in this soundtrack. Certain elements may be a tad generic, but on the whole it’s a soundtrack that works phenomenally well with the film itself to the point of perfection. The film’s closing song is the beautiful cover of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ sung by Regina Spektor and it is just a fitting encapsulation of the film’s tone and style and as such, the perfect end to the film.
Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo (Art Parkinson), and Monkey (Charlize Theron). (Source)
The performances throughout the film are also spot on. Art Parkinson (who people should recognise as Rickon from Game of Thrones) is amazing as Kubo. He carries the weight of the film on his shoulders and delivers a resounding performance. He’s got a plucky tone that is immensely likeable and you really can’t help but love Kubo. Charlize Theron is spectacular as Monkey, hitting a brilliant tone of deadpan snark which contrasts nicely to Kubo’s pep. Matthew McConaughey does really well as Beetle, being the primary source of comedy in the film, but he is probably the weaker of the three leads though this may in part be down to the script. Ralph Fiennes is deliciously evil as the Moon King when he finally makes his appearance (as you would expect of Voldemort) and Rooney Mara is utterly terrifying as the Sisters. Then you have small but fun performances by George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, and Brenda Vaccaro as some of the villagers in Kubo’s village, and each of them adds a bit of magic to the cast. It’s a fantastic cast doing fantastic performances, and it just elevates Kubo even higher.
Kubo and the Two Strings is one of those films that is truly special. (Source)
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of Kubo and the Two Strings before watching, but it has easily cemented itself as the greatest animated film of the year (and Zootopia/Zootropolis was pretty sturdy competition). As stated before, it’s an audiovisual masterpiece made all the more impressive by the fact that the majority of the film is stop-motion. Very rarely these days is it possible to be awed by the question of ‘how did they do that?’ when it comes to film-making, but Kubo is filled with many such moments from the origami fight to the gigantic skeleton monster to a ship made of leaves. It was clearly a work of passion by director Travis Knight and the team at Laika, and it shows in every bit of tiny detail scattered throughout the film. There are criticisms that could be lain at the feet of the film about its simplistic plot or the generic tropes or the humour, but I would argue that the film self-reflexively comments on these issues in such a way that they become a point of discussion rather than actual issues. If you like the art of film or even just want to see something that feels fresh, exciting, and emotionally complex, you need to see Kubo and the Two Strings.
Rating: 10/10 – Outstanding
Critical: 5/5 Personal: 5/5