Streaming through a violent ocean, on a small raft, a mother and a crying baby are about to be consumed by the gigantic waves. A voice over tells us to pay attention, all secrets are hiding in plain sight. The mother stares the behemoth down, stands in the rickety boat and wields a fiddle. As she strums; the musical note divides and peels away the titanic wave with its vibration. You have to pause for a second in this opening to reset your eye to recognise the magnificence of the stop motion animation and it’s clear “Kubo and the Two Strings” has you in its grasp.
The powerful sorceress Sariatu is fleeing from her evil father after his nemesis, her husband the Samurai warrior Hanzo, is slain and he claims one of her son Kubo’s eyes. After years in hiding, in a state of melancholia and loneliness her son, Kubo, has inherited her power and wields her magical fiddle to summon origami figures to perform the stories he's gleaned about their past. When Sariatu’s magical family discovers their location, Kubo is lead on a collision course with the villains of his folklore; witches, monsters and the vengeful Moon God. Sariatu casts a spell that transports him far into the desolate outer lands. Accompanied by a talking Monkey, an origami samurai Little Hazno and a giant half man/half scarab named Beetle; he must compile his father’s scattered armour to prepare him for a final confrontation with his grandfather.
Director Travis Knight tackles Laika’s latest genre homage with that same Pixar magic that makes it just entertaining for kids but spellbinding for adults. It continues Laika’s aesthetic blend of digital effects and the craft of motion capture models for this magical Japanese fantasy. Knight stunningly recreates gravity defying, manga battle conventions. The forced perspective of imposing figures strafing across the screen wielding swords while breathing texture and life to the magic surrounding Kubo and his mother as paper ripples and takes shape according to their whims.
“Kubo” much like “Harry Potter” has real darkness in its mythology; coldblooded murder of a family and baby; or wrench an eye from a newborn; it’s frightening stuff. Writers Marc Haimes (screenplay/story) along with Chris Butler and Shannon Tindle (story) get the tonal balance right between the darkness and the good humour of the cute villagers and the back and forth between the rag tag assembly. The core characters are faced with a series of challenges of increasing levels of difficulty, and Kubo’s search for the armour with his strange companions is a journey of self-discovery. He learns about the significance of his father and his mother in the wreckage of the landscape that remains after his family’s enduring conflict; his companions are more than they seem to be.
Art Parkinson is just terrific as Kubo. He’s got a great commanding presence when he’s telling stories or facing the seemingly insurmountable; but you never forget that he’s a young man. Parkinson’s sweetness is most essential as Kubo cares tenderly for his mother, who in their escape suffered a head injury that affects her grip on reality. In the day hours, she’s silent, in a near catatonic state; at night as she dreams, her great power communicates through swirling paper unconsciously manipulated. The voice performances by Charlize Theron (Sariatu/Monkey) and Matthew McConaughey (Beetle) don’t impress you from the outset, but as you discover more about their characters; you agree with the tone. Great voice casting is nominating Rooney Mara to voice psychotic, witchy sisters. Ralph Fiennes is the Moon King and there’s such a seductive sweetness to the way he approaches the character.
The very best movies out of Laika Studios - “ParaNorman” and “Kubo” - challenge their audiences as much as their characters to be compassionate. In “ParaNorman”, despite all of the grotesque monstrousness of the zombies, witches and ghouls; the darkest moments in the film are watching the people devolve into a bloodthirsty mob due to fear. “Kubo” is a storyteller and for the largest part of the film, he's guided by the myths of his family's past. When he's able to decipher truth from the myths he wields a great power. He is the author of his own story and has the power to change his destiny. “Kubo and the Two Strings” does something completely unique, it genuinely surprises you. It’s in that surprise, that you find yourself disarmed. “Kubo and the Two Strings” is a profound piece of poetry and empathy. Not all foes need to be vanquished; some need to be embraced.
Directed by: Travis Knight
Written by: Marc Haimes
(screenplay/story) and Chris Butler (“ParaNorman”) and Shannon Tindle (story)
Charlize Theron ... Monkey (voice)
Art Parkinson ... Kubo (voice)
Ralph Fiennes ... Moon King (voice)
George Takei ... Hosato (voice)
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa ... Hashi (voice)
Brenda Vaccaro ... Kameyo (voice)
Rooney Mara ... The Sisters (voice)
Matthew McConaughey ... Beetle (voice)