Kubo and the Two Strings

UK Release Date 9th September 2016
Director Travis Knight
Starring Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron
Runtime 101 Minutes
Certificate PG
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 18th September 2016

To date, I have managed to miss every single one of the Laika’s productions, despite looking at every one of them and thinking it looked worth seeing. Jo was slightly more diligent and did catch The Boxtrolls, complete with Broken Shark’s most difficult to please critic. Both loved it, despite it being distinctly odd. Laika it would seem are determined to keep to the less well trodden side of the path with their stop motion animation. On the basis of their latest, I think that’s a superb path to be following.

Kubo and the Two Strings is the tale of young Kubo, a child robbed of left eye by his grandfather (yikes!) and driven from his home, along with his mother, by her two evil sisters. Hiding out in a remote cave on the edge of a village, Kubo spends his nights looking after his increasingly distant mother and hiding from the prying nocturnal eyes of the evil sisters. During the day, he treks down to the village to earn money with his magical musical stories, told to the villagers with animated origami and his magic guitar. Despite his mother’s sage advice not to stay out after dark, Kubo’s attempts to communicate with the spirit of his dead father leave him vulnerable in the forest one night. The sisters appear and Kubo’s mother is forced to use the last of her magic to rescue him, leaving him alone in the wastes with a talking monkey….

And so begins an epic adventure across the lands as Kubo searches for the golden armour that can protect him against the vengeful sisters and his grandfather, the Moon King. And I really do mean epic. This may be stop-motion but be under no illusions as to director (and Laika CEO) Travis Knight and his astonishingly talented animation team’s ambitions here. This is a movie that could only have been created by people completely in love with the process, every tiny detail is magnificently brought to life and fleshes out an old but none the less well written story.

Using an animation technique that brings together the very best of modern technology (in the form of 3D printing and computerised robotics) with a plethora of traditional techniques (some truly impressive costume design and good old fashioned stop motion movements), the Laika team create a world that is so utterly packed with detail, you wonder just how much an average viewer will take in. The village is a superb example of this. When we first visit, we get a sweeping view of a bustling town centre. Beggars, tradesmen, animals, old men playing draughts, all mixing with stylised Japanese architecture to create a completely life-like yet somehow impressionistic scene. I could probably spend an entire review just praising the animation but for the sake of brevity, I'll just say that I can't recall seeing this level of careful attention to detail in any stop-motion movie. Eyes, teeth, hair, weather, fabrics... everything is just a marvel.

Into this wonderfully realised world are thrown a bunch of genuinely memorable characters. Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a likeable and believable hero. Old beyond his years in many ways but still alone and scared for large parts of the movie. Monkey (Charlize Theron), previously Mr. Monkey prior to magical transformation, is a mentor, protector and butt of many jokes all at once and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey - discovered en route to the armour) fills out the jester role, noble and brave yet still incapable of getting up once he has fallen on his back. 

And, for a movie that will no doubt attract a young audience, the villains are genuinely scary (more so than anything found in, say, the Black Hills Forest). The PG rating on this is well earned, so be mindful if you’re thinking of taking young children. The Sisters (Rooney Mara) levitate and threaten from behind frozen expressionless masks, swooping through the frame with cloaks billowing and creepy dark fog following them. Their aim, to retrieve Kubo’s other eye, is also the stuff of nightmares. Leading them is the shrunken, pale, Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Blind to what he sees as the squalid world of man, he is determined that his grandson join him.

The heroes’ journey takes in a mesmerising set of locales, all the more amazing with the knowledge that each one was built by hand. A barren frozen waste gives way to shelter inside a gigantic whale carcass, followed by ancient ruins, a showdown with a giant skeleton (easily one of the best set pieces I’ve seen in any movie this year), an epic voyage across a lake, a fight with giant aquatic eyeballs, Kubo’s father’s derelict home to a final showdown with the Moon King in the decimated village (another barnstorming set-piece). An epic journey for any hero, let alone a child one, equipped with only a guitar, some paper and protected by an amnesiac beetle and a former toy monkey.

Everything about this movie oozes quality. Aside from the animation and costumes, the voice work is spot on, the cinematography breathtakingly beautiful and the score heart-wrenchingly apt. The script, a weak link in many otherwise great animations, is also up to the task. When it is at its most sombre, the script has some impressively deep rumination on loss - both immediate and, more heart-breakingly, over time - along with the importance of friendship and family. But this is broken up by moments of levity that are well timed and genuinely funny, the entire movie is well paced without any expositional drag or filler.

In Short:

Kubo and the Two Strings is an astonishing achievement for the impressive Laika. Check out the making of here and don’t leave before you’ve watched the credits. Well scripted, sumptuous to behold and with enough for both adults and brave small people, this really does mark the out studio as a Western bastion of brave animation (I'd be far less incredulous if something this complete had come across from Japan). No Disney endings here, this is genuinely affecting stuff and a movie that stays true to itself to deliver a achingly beautiful tale. 

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