2016 was a good year for animated movies. Although the whip-smart Zootopia and rousing Moana dominated the headlines — and not without merit — for me, nothing compares to the searing artistic brilliance of Kubo and the Two Strings — a wonderful fantasy adventure from LAIKA (the studio behind Coraline and The Boxtrolls), that weaves darkness and light into a truly memorable spectacle of animated film-making.
Kubo is a one-eyed Japanese boy, exiled in a cave with his mother on the edge of a remote village, where he earns the family’s upkeep as a shamisen-plucking storyteller with an innate ability to bring origami figures to life. One day, Kubo’s simple existence is shattered when two ghostly figures arrive intent on stealing his remaining eye and dragging him off to his evil grandfather. Kubo flees with help from origami figures that have transmuted into animal form — a cantankerous monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and an amnesiac samurai warrior stag beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Kubo embarks on a surreal quest for a magical suit of armour that will protect him from his baleful pursuers, and along the way finds out that there is more than meets the eye to his strange new companions.
The plot draws heavily on themes from Japanese classic folklore — where child heroes, talking animals, and creepy-as-all-hell female villains are the norm, and the tenuous fabric between reality and mysterious spirit worlds is frequently torn. In this latter regard, Kubo shares a strong tonal kinship with the movies of Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke), but also the visceral grotesquerie of Tim Burton’s movies.
LAIKA’s trademark is its use of offbeat animation styles, favouring stop-motion techniques over the conventional taste for CGI. While audiences rightly marvel at the verisimilitude and incredible rendering of what seems like every individual hair in Pixar and DreamWorks movies, LAIKA has a much more impressionistic style that embraces (rather than seeks to transcend) the artifacts of animation processes. This is a film that revels in texture; it feels tangible and substantial to the eyes as a work of art in its own right — much like the beauty of Japanese calligraphy derives from the overt brushstrokes as much from the meaning of the words (on this note, be sure to stick out the closing credits for some behind-the-scenes footage of the making of one of the movie’s best set pieces).
In recent years, animated movies have earned plaudits for their sympathetic treatment of mental illness, anxiety and other cognitive disorders (most notably in the Finding Nemo movies and Inside Out) For its part, Kubo deserves tremendous credit for one of the most poignant evocations of depression I have ever seen. Watching Kubo care for his mother, who is paralyzed in the listless, hopeless way that anyone who has witnessed a loved one struggling with depression will recognize immediately, was a thoroughly moving experience, and very sensitively handled.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a brilliantly original, dark, and deeply affecting movie, yet at the same time it manages to check all the boxes of a competent family adventure story, and both of my children (5 &9) loved it (despite some tight hand-holding during the creepier bits). There is no shortage of slapstick action and plenty of laughs (courtesy of McConaughey and Theron, who are both better-than-average voice actors). The use of music is incredible throughout, with hauntingly austere shamisen melodies mutating into power-chord assaults during frantic moments of battle and pursuit. I left enchanted, exhilarated, and grateful that the long credit sequence gave my eyes time to dry. Stunning stuff.
Dan’s rating: (9 / 10)
Director: Travis Knight
Writer: Marc Haimes (screenplay), Chris Butler (screenplay)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei
Release Date: August 19, 2016
Runtime: 1h, 41min
MPAA Rating: PG