“Kubo and the Two Strings” creates a unique world based on traditional Japanese art in shades of red, blue, gold, and black. The characters look like wooden kokeshi dolls, and the backgrounds look like traditional Japanese woodcut prints. It even starts with a woman fighting off a giant wave with a shamisen (a Japanese lute) which almost serves as an homage to “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” There are also charmed origami creatures that help the main characters, a magical shamisen that brings things to life, and accurate samurai armor and kimonos.
The movie is most reminiscent of “The Emperor’s New Groove,” “Atlantis,” and “Lilo and Stitch,” products of Disney’s now shuttered Florida animation studio. It’s a handmade mythological story taking place in a huge and diverse multilayered world. The stop motion characters are three dimensional, hand painted, clothed in ornate silk patterned robes, and their hair is jagged and chunky, full of texture. They move as though they are gliding through the screen and leave real shadows behind them.
It fits in better with early 2000s Disney, than with current children’s animated films. Oregon-based Laika Studio’s film looks man-made and vulnerable, evoking a sense of nostalgia and acting as a cure to predictable, glossy digital movies like “Frozen” which, while visually stunning, hold little depth.
“Kubo” as directed by Travis Knight, is a magical adventure through imperial Japan as seen through the eyes of Kubo (Art Parkinson), the son of a powerful runaway witch (Charlize Theron) and a legendary samurai (Matthew McConaughey). Parkinson does a great job at conveying the excitement, fear, and alienation that Kubo feels while out on his adventure. McConaughey falters a little bit.
Portraying Kubo’s father who has been turned into a beetle, he can’t hide his Texas accent and sounds out of place from the rest of the cast. Theron has the most complex role, first playing a nearly catatonic woman, obsessed with protecting her son and telling him their story, and then playing a revived monkey charm hiding a deep sense of loss beneath the veneer of a ferocious no-nonsense personality.
Kubo embarks on a quest to complete a suit of golden armor, the only weapon that can destroy his evil grandfather (Ralph Fiennes.) While on his quest Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle have to defeat the Night King’s twin daughters (Rooney Mara). Clad in black and with unmoving faces, they are scarier than things seen in most horror movies.
Kubo’s story is ultimately a story about loss and death, there isn’t a happy ending, but there’s a sense of hope that things will get better. It’s a crucial, yet heartbreaking, lesson, one that hides behind a beautifully unique movie that isn’t afraid to deal with the uglier side of life. That’s the best part about “Kubo,” it’s scary and weird and innovative and emotionally realistic instead of trying to keep audiences comfortable. “Kubo” also creates a sense of nostalgia, at least for me, because we don’t have movies like it anymore. The stop-motion animated film is a dying art, and “Kubo” is one of the last of it’s kind.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5
PHOTO CREDIT: Focus Features