Laika Studios is quickly establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with. Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls are all sumptuous stop-motion animations with wit, heart, and yes, weirdness, to match. KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS further cements Laika’s status as a studio to pay attention to whenever it releases a new movie. Kubo and the Two Strings raises the bar for their own movies, bursting at the seams with gorgeous animation, terrific writing, and wonderful weirdness. Most importantly, Kubo packs several emotional punches that make this latest outing one of Laika’s most heartfelt yet.
The movie opens on a tempest, with an instruction that “If you must blink, do it now.” That’s advice you’re going to want to take. As a tiny boat carrying a woman carves its way through the stormy sea a giant wave rises up before her. The harrowing beauty of this sequence is the first example of the stunning imagery that will become commonplace over the next one hundred minutes. The knowledge that the majority of the film is animated frame by frame only adds to the awe. The wave crashes into the skiff sending the woman plummeting to the depths where she slams her head on a rock. She washes ashore, dazed and concussed, and we learn she has a baby with her, Kubo. Years pass, and the mother and one-eyed son Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) live together in a secluded cave. The mother’s head injury from that fateful night has resulted in permanent damage. Every day she drifts further away, despite Kubo’s best efforts to keep her present. To support he and his mother, Kubo travels to a nearby village each day and puts on a terrific show of storytelling, in which he plays a magical guitar that manipulates sheets of paper into acting out battles of a samurai against giant spiders and other creatures.
His mother’s one rule is that Kubo should never stay out past dark, or his evil aunts and grandfather will return to take his other eye. Naturally, whenever there’s a warning this dire in the beginning of a film we can count on the instructions to go unheeded. And that’s exactly what occurs. Kubo stays out past dark on the night of the village festival and his two aunts, twin sisters voiced by Rooney Mara, descend upon Kubo in swirls of black smoke. The sisters are about as creepy as twins can get this side of The Shining. Kubo barely escapes and finds himself on a quest to find two pieces of armor and a sword that will allow him to defeat his aunts and grandfather.
Joining him on this quest is a small origami warrior, a monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron), and a beetle samurai man (Matthew McConaughey). Monkey and Beetle, as they’re mostly known in the film, don’t get along and their bickering is constantly amusing. Hysterical jabs at each other aside, McConaughey and Theron’s vocal performances fit perfectly with the stilted look of stop-motion animation. That’s not to knock Art Parkinson’s more naturalized performance. Kubo is the center of the film, this is his quest, and a grounded, authentic performance works for that purpose. As side characters who often provide comic relief, however, Theron and McConaughey’s punchy voice work elevate the humor.
In Kubo, the heart of the movie is what really makes it succeed. The film allows us to become completely invested in Kubo’s journey to discover his past and realize his destiny. This is a movie where emotions and memories rule. Kubo’s weapons are his storytelling, his magical guitar, and his words. There is plenty of sword action in the film, to be sure, but the fact that Kubo mainly does battle with nonviolent methods is a great alternative to the usual fight scenes found in most movies. Although likely too scary for small kids (those twins voiced by Rooney Mara still give me the shivers), plenty of mature kids will get plenty from the movie, and adults even more so. Kubo and the Two Strings is a movie filled with heart, humor, and breathtaking animation.
Running time: 101 minutes
Wil Loper | Contributor