Ahhh. That nice feeling of watching something original.
Kubo is a young son of a warrior who is maimed as a baby by The Moon King and is raised by his mother as a storyteller. Now older he lives in isolation, with his injured mother, hiding from the Moon King’s servants who wish to take his other eye. But he cannot hide forever…
Laika Studios make gorgeous stop-motion animation. 2009’s Coraline, 2012’s Paranorman and 2014’s Boxtrolls, are all exceptionally well crafted animation and frankly appeals to this reviewer far more than any “computer generated animation”.
Well, the short film Piper at the start of Finding Dory is definitely an exception…
And all of those films are surprisingly dark in tone, Boxtrolls a little less so (it is my least favourite of their incredible filmography) and Kubo and the Two Strings is no different. Parents beware, Laika makes stories that actually challenge your child. We start off with Kubo as a baby being rescued by his mother across the ocean during a storm, and we see his mother’s head being dashed against the rocks! Woah. Blood within the first five minutes!
What follows is a very beautiful and very mysterious hero’s journey story, with a focus on feudal Japan and origami paper-folding. Kubo has a gift of telling stories, and magically animating paper and creating origami characters by playing a shamisen, and one of his first companions is a little origami samurai warrior.
Joining him on his journey though is a talking monkey, voiced by Charlize Theron, and Beetle – a samurai warrior cursed into the form of a humanoid beetle, voiced by Matthew McConaughey. They battle together against horrific monsters like a massive skeleton and the Moon King’s assassins; masked and robed in black. The design work is stunning and the animation is gorgeously haunting at times. The key word also being “battle”. Laika are getting good at stop-motion combat. We have bows and arrows, swords, chain weapons, incredibly difficult concepts for stop-motion and yet it is all very convincing.
For as dark and unsettling as it is, there is a good through line of humour. After all, it is a young boy traveling with a talking monkey and a beetle-man! There are some good chuckles to be had.
Unfortunately, this film is going to drop like a brick with general audiences. Poor advertisement, it died in America, and the cinema I had viewed it only had about ten people, and no one was interested. Phones came out, children were restless.
I can’t stand it.
But Kubo’s story doesn’t do it any favours either. It is very ambiguous with motivations and overall intent and drive. This is literally a journey movie, and while there is a good harmony and meaning (the titular Two Strings) I found myself very confused by the actual menace and threat that was so heavily pushed on our heroes. Coupled with an unconventional ending, Kubo and the Two Strings feels like a bigger, darker tale streamlined down.
I wanted more, and that isn’t a bad thing per se.
It is a beautiful movie with jaw-dropping stop-motion effects and is definitely worth a watch! Spend a nice quiet evening with the family, turn the phones off, watch Kubo and appreciate some top quality animation and design work.