“If you must blink, do it now.” These are the opening words of Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest stop-motion marvel from animation studio LAIKA. It also serves as poignant harbinger for the audience, because chances are that over the course of Kubo‘s mesmerizing running time, you will find your eye sockets – and probably mouth as well – permanently agape at the wonder on display here.

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Travis Knight, LAIKA’s CEO and lead animator on their impressive previous features (Coraline, Paranorman, Boxtrolls), takes the directing reins himself for this one. And its fitting that “the boss” is actually behind this, as Kubo is the best thing the studio has ever done; an incredible mythological adventure filled with as much heart and character as there is technical brilliance in its eye-popping stop-motion visuals.

The eponymous Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a young boy who lives with his mother in a vertiginous cave next to a small Japanese fishing village. Kubo spends his days caring for his mom, who drifts in and out of lucidity, never able to hold onto memories. Her brain-addled state is a side effect of a violent injury she endured years earlier – shown in the film’s wowing opening moments – as she used magical abilities to escape her vindictive family with baby Kubo. The now grown-up son has inherited his mother’s magical gifts, able to bring origami paper creations to life with a strum on his shamisen (a traditional three-string Japanese lute). He uses this gift to procure food and money by telling fantastical stories, aided by origami actors, in the local village, much to the delight of its inhabitants.

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What the villagers don’t know though is there is an underlying truth to Kubo’s outlandishly entertaining tales of noble heroes and ancient foes. His father was actually the heroic warrior Hanzo, who gave his life to protect Kubo and his mother – revealed to be the daughter of the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) – from her twisted father and twin Sisters (Rooney Mara). As his mother frequently warns him, Kubo’s grandfather and aunts are still looking for him for their own nefarious purposes, which is why he’s never allowed to stay out at night, in view of the moon. But when a local festival honouring the dead draws the young boy out past his curfew, it kicks off a series of events that sees Kubo having to become hero like his father before him.

Helping Kubo on this quest is Monkey (Charlize Theron), a protection totem given life by his mother’s magic, whose job it is to keep Kubo safe no matter what; and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), an ex-samurai cursed with an insect-like body and a forgetful memory, but still retaining all his martial skills. Together the mismatched trio go on a magical journey filled with just about everything you would want from an adventure story.

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Kubo fully embraces its mythological leanings to create a vibrant, textured world for this all to play out. The characters are instantly engaging, brought to life not just through outstanding voice-work and fantastic design, but by a narrative that gets the audience to invest in both their joys and heartaches (and boy, is there ever heartache!), as well as getting caught up in the thrilling action. Action that flips between terrifying darkness and light cartoonishness with an unflappable confidence in its ability to balance both.

This is a movie featuring a monkey kung fu fighting a giant skeleton in one scene, but also deeply moving moments of retrospection on themes of familial loss, painful sacrifice, personal honour and growing up, in the next. It’s a story about the power of the story, layered with subtext that’s there if you look for it, but not browbeating you with its parable nature. It’s a movie that will leave kids squealing in delight at the colourful antics of the young Kubo and co, as well as have adults in quiet contemplation as it deals with touching tragedy.

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And this incredibly deft narrative juggling is bolstered by Knight and his team of movie making stop-motion wizards turning in a fully gawk-worthy presentation. Seamlessly merging stop-motion puppets with CGI detail-soaked CG backdrops, their awe-inspiring craftsmanship is readily evident in every every frame. LAIKA’s past work has already identified them as the dark horse in the Hollywood animated movie race, with their jaw dropping mastery of stop-motion animation giving them an unassailable unique advantage. But even with all their past pedigree, Kubo and the Two Strings is still career best stuff for these unbelievably gifted story tellers. More than just being the best movie LAIKA’s ever done though, it’s also one the best I’ve seen in 2016 thus far. This is simply an enthralling must-see for everybody!

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Last Updated: August 18, 2016

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