THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS"
It's always amazing to see people raising the bar on their own work. That's exactly what happens in Kubo and the Two Strings. The talented folks at Laika have been making wildly ambitious stop-motion animated films for a few years: Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls. Those movies are elaborate and beautiful, and they do things with the format that don't seem possible. Kubo blows them all away.
The story revolves around a young, guitar-playing Japanese boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) who lives with his ailing mother. His grandfather, the nefarious Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), and two evil aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara) are trying to track him down. He cannot go out after dark, lest they find him. To protect Kubo, his mother uses magic to cast him off. The only way to save himself and his village is to find three powerful pieces of armor that belonged to his late warrior father. There are two helpers in this quest. One is Monkey (Charlize Theron), the living embodiment of a small charm he possesses. The other is a cursed samurai named Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), thus named because of his half-man/half-bug appearance.
Kubo and the Two Strings utilizes a lot of elements from Japanese mythology, including great warriors, flying creatures, the spirits of ancestors, and celestial (in this case, lunar) importance. It uses these things to tell a surprisingly profound story about family, but also about human kindness, specifically the way we define ourselves by how compassionately we treat other people. The beauty of the tale is that its themes creep up on you. Not until the highly emotional ending do you realize how carefully the groundwork has been laid. There's more genuine meaning here than in 99% of other family films.
The animation, meanwhile, is absolutely breathtaking. The Laika team takes on things they haven't tried before, ranging from monkey fur to an underwater sequence, and they succeed across the board. Everything has been designed to be visually appealing, but also true to elements of classical Japanese culture. There isn't a single shot in the movie that couldn't be framed and placed on your wall as a work of art. That's how detailed and gorgeous it is.
Equally impressive are the action sequences, which are both imaginative and mesmerizing. They have a level of complexity far beyond anything Laika has done before (and they've consistently been boundary-pushers). In one, Kubo and friends take on a colossal skeleton. One of the many swords embedded into its skull is the one they need. Fighting him entails making their way up to his head and pulling those swords out individually until they find the correct one, all while the skeleton tries to swat them away. A later scene involving massive eye creatures is also dazzling, as is the final spooky confrontation between Kubo and the Moon King.
All the voice performers are outstanding, especially McConaughey, who earns laughs as the valiant-yet-goofy Beetle. The combination of strong acting, rich storytelling, groundbreaking animation, and brilliant visual style makes Kubo and the Two Strings something special. The film has real heart and soul. It challenges young viewers to consider their place within their own families, while simultaneously reminding them that the world is a much better place when we show others the best of ourselves.
A treat for viewers of all ages, Kubo and the Two Strings is nothing less than an animated masterpiece.
( out of four)
Kubo and the Two Strings is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.
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