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Kubo and the Two Strings

August 19, 2016
Kubo and the Two Strings

Is it even possible for Laika to make a bad movie? The Boxtrolls may have been their weakest offering, and even that was plenty entertaining. Kubo and the Two Strings brings their storytelling back up into the realm of ParaNorman and the Neil Gaiman-inspired Coraline.

Kubo (Art Parkinson) lives with his mother on the outskirts of a quiet village. Every day he goes down to tell stories in the square. As he plays his shamisen, his origami papers fold themselves into animated figures of the great samurai Hanzō, and the legendary monsters he fights on his adventures. But his stories are always left without a proper ending, as he must rush back to his mother’s cave before dark. In her moments of lucidity, she tells Kubo that Hanzō was his father, and that they had to hide from the jealousy of her own father, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), lest he pluck out Kubo’s other eye.

Of course, one night Kubo does stay out late, and he is spotted by his mother’s two sisters (Rooney Mara). Kubo’s mother comes to his defense, and uses the last of her power to enchant his kimono so it flies him to temporary safety. When he wakes, she is gone, but his monkey statue has come to life as his guide (Charlize Theron). They must seek out a sword, a breastplate, and a helmet that will keep Kubo safe from the Moon King.

Along their way, they meet one of Hanzō’s samurai legion, turned into an amnesiac beetle (Matthew McConaughey). With Monkey as Kubo’s stern guardian, bickering with Beetle as his enthusiastic protector, the three form an odd sort of family as they go on their adventure. And what an adventure! Giant skeletons, lake monsters, and of course the Moon King and his remaining daughters stand in Kubo’s way. Director and Laika CEO Travis Knight’s love of Ray Harryhausen fantasy is evident in every frame.

Kubo shows a clear respect for the Japanese folk-tales it draws from, though it does seem odd to choose an entirely western core vocal cast. The artistic style owes as much to Japanese culture as the story does, and it’s so smoothly executed it’s difficult to remember that this is stop-motion rather than computer-generated animation. Remember, as usual, to stay through the credits to see Laika’s signature stinger: a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the film’s production.

But it’s not just the gorgeous animation that makes Kubo a winner. Kubo stayed out that night because he wanted to talk with his father, the way the rest of the villagers speak with their deceased loved ones. Memories like these are powerful and meaningful things. So are the relations we build within families — even ersatz ones — and communities. It’s why Beetle’s punishment was so cruel, and why Kubo’s mother is so tragic; they are cut off from the same wellspring of meaning that Kubo desperately seeks for himself.

And it’s why Kubo’s avocation is so perfectly chosen: we pass down our memories and our meaning through the stories we tell, modifying and transforming them according to our own talents. Stories are how we tell each other who we are. Kubo, like Knight, tells his by forming and animating lifeless scraps into vivid images, and we are all the better for the telling.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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