The small-shop, stop-animation studio Laika has only released three full-length movies – Coraline, The Boxtrolls, and ParaNorman. Despite the small portfolio of films, each film has earned a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod. The studio has also built a reputation of providing a refreshingly odd alternative to the glossy squareness of most mainstream children’s movies that come into theaters. I’ve never seen any of their three previous films so I decided to take a chance and see their fourth film…and I couldn’t be more impressed.
Kubo and the Two Strings is the epic tale of young Kubo, a young boy with only one eye, as he plays his two stringed instrument in the nearby town during the day to earn money and returning to care for his mother at night, constantly looking over his shoulder but he doesn’t know why. When it turns out that the rest of his mother’s family is coming after him, Kubo sets out on a hero’s journey, protected by a drill sergeant monkey (Charlize Theron) and a forgetful beetle-like hybrid (Matthew McConaughey) to collect the pieces of a powerful armor to defeat his evil relatives.
The ancient-Japan set animated film has its dark parts: a callback to the bad old days of gothic fairy tales where boogeymen lurk, parents die, and children must find the courage to be brave, strong, and resourceful to survive. Kubo is all of those things: a clever, self-sufficient boy; he goes into the town square every day and earns spare change by twanging his shamisen – a stripped down, three-stringed guitar – and telling stories with his ingeniously fashioned origami figures, channeling the magic that comes from him and playing the guitar. At the evening, he returns to a dank cave to tend to his mother. Her memory comes and goes, but the jagged scar running down her cheek – and the patch that permanently covers Kubo’s left eye – reminds her that neither one of them are safe. If Kubo fails to follow her rules and stays out after dark, her estranged sisters will come to collect her son’s remaining eye, and join it with the one that her father stole from him when he was born.
As you would guess, Kubo does exactly that and, as the sun sets one day and turns into night before he can return home, his aunts (both voiced by a hauntingly-sounding Rooney Mara) arrive – witchy, terrifying twins with kabuki-white faces, black swirling shrouds as they appear in black smoke. And with that, the young Kubo is sent on a quest in the dangerous world to recover a magical suit of armor that will protect him. Along the way, many revelations, including the truth behind his mother’s trauma and his Samurai father’s fate, the supernatural origin of his extended family, and the mystery of the movie’s title.
First-time director Travis Knight, who served as lead animator on Laika’s previous three films, gave Kubo a colorfully, solid look full of lavish depth and detail. The bickering interplay between McConaughey’s Beetle and Theron’s monkey protector shines bright throughout the narrative, helping balance the stakes of the tale. The animation really shines through each scene.This come not just from the animation but in the plot, themes, and film overall. The themes of family, bravery, magic, and love help transcend this hero’s journey story into something that everyone of all ages can enjoy. Kubo is a marvel – a visually stunning, richly imagined paradise in a sea of Disney candy-colored safety, and one of the truly original films of this year. You can count on seeing this film in the Oscar race this year.