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‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ (review)

kubo-trailerProduced by Travis Knight, Arianne Sutner
Screenplay by Marc Haimes, Chris Butler
Story by Shannon Tindle, Marc Haimes
Directed by Travis Knight
Starring Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson,
Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara,
George Takei, Matthew McConaughey

So far this summer’s movie offerings have been, in my humble opinion, atrocious to say the least. I think I have to go back to late June’s release of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon to find something that I thoroughly enjoyed.

And so, with that in mind, thank God for Kubo and the Two Strings.

When I first began seeing ads for Kubo and the Two Strings a year or so ago, I was intrigued and hopeful, mainly because it was produced by Laika, which is responsible for some brilliant cinematic animation, my favorite so far being Coraline, written by Neil Gaiman and directed by Henry Selick.

With this in my mind, I went into Kubo and the Two Strings with very high expectations., and not only did it meet them, it soared above and beyond them to provide me with a wealth of visual eye candy to go along with a heart wrenchingly gorgeous story about destiny, family, and the power of unconditional love.

As is Laika’s reputation, stunning traditional stop motion animation is back in the spotlight again, and it is glorious. It is mixed seamlessly with more modern 3D computer animation to bring Kubo’s world alive. There are moments where I forgot that the movie is all hand animated with actual 3D models and maquettes. Sure, they are now assisted by some more modern computer motion controlled armatures and gimbals, but this is still all physical models shot on real sets. The movie overall is beautiful, but definitely be sure stay for the really neat after credit sequence.

The plot of the film is about the son of a great samurai, Kubo (Game of Thrones’ Art Parkinson), and his mother, who now reside on a remote island after some personal tragedies. The mother is sick and her son takes care of her. He provides for her by going down into the local village and making money by telling tales of wonder about the battles between samurai and evil spirits. Kubo is gifted with certain magic from his mother with which he can make paper and light objects fly and animate with the music he produces from the samisen, a three stringed Japanese lute played with a very large pick.

All is going well until Kubo forgets about the one caveat his mother gave him, that he must be back after dark, because Kubo’s evil twin aunts (Rooney Mara) and grandfather (Ralph Finnes) are looking for him and want to return him to their magical realm in the heavens. Kubo must find two magical pieces of armor and a special sword to defeat them. Along the way in his quest he befriends a guardian Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a cursed Samurai (Matthew McConaughey) who has been transformed into a beetle.

To say any more would be to ruin the surprises, the beautiful reveals, and the well written script, and I am definitely NOT going to do that. I have already said too much.

What I will say is that the voice actors are wonderfully cast. I am sure someone out there is already complaining that the main vocal cast is all white in a Japanese-inspired movie. It didn’t bother me. As an Asian and as a pretty vocal caller-out of whitewashing in Hollywood I think that the actor choices are fine in this fantasy film. Yes, it is Asian inspired, but there is a huge difference between actors providing the voices for characters and “yellow facing”. Let this one go folks. It neither harms nor effects the film negatively in anyway.

Laika Studios CEO and lead animator Travis Knight knocked this one out into the atmosphere. This was his first time helming a feature, and he crushed it. It helps that he had a near perfect script by Marc Haimes and Chris Buttler (ParaNorman) from a story by Butler and Shannon Tindle (Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends). The pedigree for this production team is impeccable, and it shines in every way imaginable.

In this time of uninspired remakes, sequels, poorly written “blockbusters,” and giant-budgeted action-spectaculars that are anything but, Kubo and the Two Strings is not only refreshing, it is recharging. It gives me hope. It makes me believe in my fellow man. Tonight was the second time I have seen this screener. I had to see it again because I didn’t get enough beautiful ugly sobbing the first time. That right there should be reason enough for anyone to want to go.

Is it perfect? No, but it isn’t hindered by its flaws. What the filmmakers have done is to take a relatively generic story and give it some TLC and imagination and created a wonderful film. I plan on seeing it at least two more times in the theater. This kind of genuinely loving filmmaking only comes around once in a while, and I want to cherish every moment I can with it.

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