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January 10, 2017

Kubo and the Two Strings

by Franz Patrick


Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A horrifying number of animated movies these days are not for smart children. Rather, they exist to sell products, to be cute, to be loud, to entertain and then to be forgotten the moment the story ends—sometimes even before since such endings must be happy and frothy. Cue the annoying dance sequence as the credits roll. “Kubo and the Two Strings,” directed Travis Knight, offers an alternative: although the medium is animation and, historically, animated pictures are usually aimed at children, it has the ambition to appeal to viewers across ages, genders, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds because of what it is really about—elements that define our humanity.

Here is an animated film that is unafraid of silence. In fact, it embraces the lack of sound like a warm embrace, highly reminiscent of the more thoughtful, sensitive, and captivating moments of legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”—and appropriate given the influence of Japanese culture in this particular story. Others can and will reduce the plot like this: a one-eyed boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) goes on a journey to acquire items that would help him defeat the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), Kubo’s very own grandfather who wish to collect his remaining eye. But Kubo’s journey and such items function as symbols for our protagonist’s true journey is an internal one.

Laika is a production company that continues to establish itself as Pixar’s counterpart for its willingness to embrace the bleak, the bizarre, and the difficult—while delivering an absorbing story—through the lens of gorgeous stop-motion animation. One that impressed me particularly involves a scene where Kubo, a determined snow monkey (Charlize Theron), and an insomniac beetle (Matthew McConaughey) must battle a giant skeleton in order to acquire a so-called Sword Unbreakable. I sat in my chair awe-struck as seemingly thousands of elements are juggled at once to create a most exciting and creative battle sequence that is also brimming with surprises. Astonished, I wondered how long the filmmakers took to film such an ambitious sequence.

And yet while it seems as though large strokes appear perfect on the canvas, the closer I looked, I noticed flaws that are intended to be there. An obvious imperfection is Kubo having only one eye. Another one is a rather large scar on the face of our young hero’s mother. Even the monkey has a mark on her face. Later, having been engaged in several violent confrontations, a bruise can be found on Kubo’s face. Our characters tend to move a bit slower as the journey goes on, only to be revved up again when life-or-death scenario arises.

These are interesting choices—fresh choices—because it makes the story and the journey that much more life-like. Here, our characters get tired. They get wounded. They consider their mortality. In return, we genuinely fear for their safety. We feel there is an excellent probability that not all of them would make it to the end. We even get a serious glimpse into their dreams. These elements are largely absent in animated movies which is exactly why “Kubo and the Two Strings,” based on the screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, is head and shoulders above their counterparts.

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