VOD film review: Kubo and the Two Strings
James R | On 19, Jan 2017
Director: Travis Knight
Cast: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey
“If you must blink, do it now,” warns Kubo (Parkinson) at the start of his tale. And make no mistake: this is every bit his tale. As well as being the star of Kubo and the Two Strings, he’s very much the narrator, a story-teller with a gift for orating, weaving, crafting and spellbinding his audience. The fact that he’s a child, and that we first meet him in full flow of telling a story to a spellbound group, is just part of what makes Laika’s latest animation so magical.
The US stop-motion studio is one of the shining gems of modern cinema, serving up the kind of family movies that turn every member of the family into eagerly-listening children. The single defining feature of their work is that it can’t be singularly defined – over the course of their relatively young but astonishingly mature output, they’ve ranged from zombies in high school and daft rubbish collectors to Japanese-infused fantasy. They have Aardman’s eye for rickety physical comedy, the expansive imagination of Studio Ghibli, the jaw-dropping visuals of peak Pixar and, running under it all, the deep philosophy of Cartoon Saloon. The result is repeatedly impressive, often offbeat and always unique.
Saloon’s Song of the Sea, a beautiful, hand-drawn meditation on the importance of sadness in life, feels particularly relevant here, as Kubo and the Strings follows Kubo’s quest to find a magical suit of armor worn by his late father – a quest that he undertakes after being separated from his mother. The loss of parents looms large (this isn’t one for very little kids), but that fear and melancholy is matched by a wistful wit, as Kubo’s adventure sparks to life with humour, warmth and creativity. That’s true right from the off, as he animates his anecdotes with a flock of origami shapes that swirl and fold with the plucking of his enchanted shamisen. Birds become boats become battling heroes in a flurry of flipping and twirling pieces of paper – and Kubo is in control of it all with every twang of each finely tuned string.
That magic introduces us to Little Hanzo, a tiny paper soldier who has his own role to play in events, and Monkey, Kubo’s scathingly sarcastic maternal guide (voiced with just the right amount of edge by Charlize Theron). “Do you ever say anything encouraging?” asks Kubo, at one point. “I encourage you not to die,” comes the reply. Comic relief, on the other hand, is provided in grand style by Beetle, a failed samurai wannabe given oodles of charisma by Matthew McConaughey.
Together, they encounter all manner of monsters and creations, most notably in the central set piece that wages war against a skeleton with all the panache and derring-do of Ray Harryhausen. (This is a remarkably confident debut from director Travis Knight, a lead animator on ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls.) That tangible quality is all part of what makes Laika’s work, going all the way back to Coraline, so effective – the danger on-screen can literally be touched, giving everything a dimension that’s easy to feel in the audience. Even the threat of the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who has taken one of Kubo’s eyes, leaves his mark upon our hero in a very physical way. Mortality, you sense, is as ubiquitous as the animators’ artistry; just as everything is tangible, it’s also fragile, capable of collapsing at any minute.
“If you fidget, if you look away, if you forget any part of what I tell you – even for an instant – then our hero will surely perish,” warns Kubo in his dramatic opening overture. Marc Haimes and Chris Butler’s script places an emphasis on that act of narrating a tale, of people and places bursting into existence through the alchemy of audience and author. The theme paves the way for a soaring epic of family, grief and youth coming-of-age. This is a world where memories are as powerful as any charm, where putting a bit of yourself into your art is rewarded. It’s a story about story-telling in all its wonder and catharsis. Blink before you watch it – you won’t want to look away.