Laika, probably one of the most exciting newcomers to the animation scene, responsible for creating such stop-motion animated hits like CORALINE (2009), PARANORMAN (2012), and BOXTROLLS (2014). Each of these movies are wonderful, kind of like if Aardman went the Tim Burton route. They’re so creepy, yet visually compelling, I still haven’t met anyone who dislikes them. So as you can see, I’m pretty damn stoked for this latest addition to their library.
The voice cast consists of some pretty big names, including Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, and Rooney Mara. Two other notable talents would be Art Parkinson from the TV show GAME OF THRONES, as well as two time Shang Tsung actor, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa from MORTAL KOMBAT (1995) and season 2 of YouTube’s Machinima’s MORTAL KOMBAT: LEGACY. Not gonna lie, the talent alone gets me pumped, as I love everyone’s work.
Behind the scenes, we have a few names to go through. Directing is Travis Knight, making his directorial debut (congrats, dude), but still a veteran of Laika’s animation department: their lead animator for all three previous movies. So, alrighty, something’s telling me this dude will be sitting rather comfortably on the head-honcho chair. The story of this film comes from the minds of two folks, Shannon Tindle and Marc Haimes (also co-writer). Tindle is a veteran in animation character design having worked on such CartoonNetwork cartoons FOSTER’S HOME FOR IMAGINARY FRIENDS and a few episodes of SAMURAI JACK, as well as Nickelodeon’s FAIRLY ODDPARENTS. Loved all those cartoons as a kid. Now, Haimes has more of a producing background. Some have been solid works like TRANSFORMERS (2007) and COLLATERAL (2004), but mostly some pretty lousy films too, like, MEN IN BLACK II, THE LEGEND OF ZORRO (2005), and A THOUSAND WORDS (2012). Whether or not he’s to blame for those train-wrecks, who can say? But what with an early 8.3/10 rating on IMDb (as of 8/17/2016), I’m sure he did just fine here. Haimes’ co-writer is Chris Butler, who previously wrote and directed PARANORMAN, as well as having been a storyboard artist for CORPSE BRIDE (2005) and supervisor for CORALINE. I’m taking a wild guess and saying that he did most of the heavy lifting and Haimes had enough influence on the script to get his name in there. Finally, the music is being done by Dario Marianelli, whose done the music for movies like EVEREST (2015), BOXTROLLS, and even V FOR VENDETTA (2005). Not a bad set of films, I’d say.
Overall, I’m going in with uber high expectations. I love the look of the film, all origami-looking and stop-motion is always a treat. Plus, with talent like this in front of and behind the camera, I’d say this is going to be one to not be missed. So without further adieu, this is my honest opinion of KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS.
Set in ancient Japan. Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is an eye-patch-wearing young boy living with his sick mother (voiced by Charlize Theron) in a cave outside of town. During the day when she sleeps, he goes to the town to tell stories about a great samurai warrior that does battle against the legendary Moon King and his forces, exciting the crowd with his magical shamisen and bringing his origami figures to life to enact those stories. But when the sun goes down, he must return home to where his mother will appear to be coherent for awhile, as she warns him to never stay out of the cave when it’s dark. But learning of a practice that is believed to allow communication with dead loved ones, Kubo sets out to try, but his efforts are in vain. Things are only made worse when he stays out too long and the moon comes out. Immediately, Kubo is met with a pair of vile masked twin women (voiced by Rooney Mara) from the heavens who refer to Kubo as their nephew, seeking his last remaining eye. They lay waste to the village in pursuit of Kubo, but just before the twins catch him, his mother appears and with the last of her magic sends him away from danger. As he awakens far from home, he is met with Monkey, a totem of his brought to life by the last of his mother’s magic in order to protect him as they go and search for the legendary suit of armor that Kubo’s father wore; said to be all that can protect him from the Moon King.
Oh man, this is probably one of the most beautifully made stop-motion films of all time. Laika really outdid themselves in one of the most glorious and epic animated films I’ve seen in awhile.
The art department alone needs to be swimming in Oscars because you can watch this movie on mute and it is visually breath-taking. The sheer size of it and how authentic it feels in this fantasy world, the character designs, even the background work, all of this was worth the price of admission alone.
So let’s get down to the voice cast. Parkinson is wonderful. Every line is he delivers is perfect. He really gets down a kid who’s trying to take care of his mother who fades in and out of her illness. He understands struggle and heartache, but he’s still one for excitement and tall tales. He’s scared, but never wavers from his goals. He’s mature, but never afraid to be sarcastic or silly. This is an example of a great kid character that too many other kids movies don’t get down very well. Theron is fabulous as always. Monkey is almost fanatically protective of Kubo, and despite constantly trying to get him to acknowledge how dire the situation is, she still gets taken with his sense of adventure and his growing abilities to control magic outside of origami, but never afraid to let him know that he still has a lot to learn, which he does. And McConaughey as Beetle is… well, it works for the character. If he wasn’t nearly as enjoyably written as he is, his voice would be a tad distracting. It almost is, but Beetle does stand well enough on his own by being playfully smug, but equally protective of Kubo. Plus, his relationship with Monkey is priceless. Their banter is hilarious. While Monkey is so serious and borderline joyless (not really, but you know what I mean), and Beetle is there to pull her proverbial pigtails. It is really fun to see her guard slowly get chipped away as Beetle’s charms make her smile more. He’s actually pretty solid comic relief.
But the true genius in this movie is how these characters interact. I know I went into a tangent up above, but let me explain a bit more. Kubo’s spent his entire life asking about his father that he never met, but his mother has always given him the most generic stories or descriptions. But she tells him the story of how she met him. She came down from the heavens and fought him. But he was so skilled with a blade and bow that she wasn’t able to defeat him, until eventually he got her to fall in love with him due to his charm and good looks, and stay on Earth to be with him and eventually have Kubo. Then the story progresses, the sisters arrive, Kubo travels with Monkey, who is introduced as abrasive and kind of mean. Then Beetle is introduced and he’s funny and skilled in weaponry. The movie never tells the audience outright, but Kubo is technically witnessing exactly how his parents first met and how they fell for each other, even though Beetle and Monkey don’t actually hook up because… well, that’s be insanely weird, awkward, and frightening. But that Kubo got a chance to sit with both his parents, even though he didn’t know it was them, is such a cathartic feeling of happiness for the kid.
And this movie is harsh. Like, maybe this movie should be for adults, harsh. I mean, Kubo has a missing eye because the Moon King took it away from him when he was an infant. But there’s no cheating magic that still gives him sight. Nope, he’s got that eye-patch because his grandfather took it from him and he sends Kubo’s aunts to snatch the other one. His mother, I don’t know what the actual condition she’s supposed to be portraying, but I got a serious Alzheimer’s vibe from it: some good days, and some bad days. If I remember correctly, she will even have memory lapses and will question, “Kubo, what happened to your eye?” I’m not gonna lie, it’s actually really hard to watch. In the best possible way, of course. And when his mother dies, she dies. Okay, she comes back as Monkey, but when Monkey dies, she dies. When Beetle dies, he really dies. There’s no retcon happy ending where the Moon King is defeated and his parents come back. No, they’re fo’ realz, dead. That’s rare for a kids film to have to guts to go through with that and have it carry such weight.
I do have to admit that this movie suffers from one problem. Predictability. I doubt there’s a single person who didn’t see Beetle was really Kubo’s dad the whole time. I mean, Kubo’s mom practically gives it away. “Skilled with a sword and bow,” and Beetle is skilled with a sword and bow. Gee, that was about as subtle as a neon sign flashing the twist at me. Also, he was funny and handsome. Well, Beetle’s funny. Can’t really comment on the handsome thing, but… McConaughey has been described as “attractive” in the past, and made a living off of being funny, so… gee willikers, I guess it could be anybody in this movie. *sarcasm*
Even though I had one problem with the film, I can’t help but feel like the movie does everything so spectacularly well that it doesn’t matter. In fact, that’s how I’m going to go out on this. It’s too amazing to let the one downside to matter. This is one for the year, guys. I highly recommend seeing this, with or without kids. It’s a visual wonder, and an emotional trip. I saw it once, but I intend to see it again.
My honest rating of KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS: 5/5
Upcoming hopeful reviews:
- BEN-HUR (2016)
- trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BmeR9GYdDU
- MORRIS FROM AMERICA
- trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8HY-6F4Y_I