Mark Reviews Movies

Kubo and the Two Strings


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Travis Knight

Cast: The voices of Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, Brenda Vaccaro, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril)

Running Time: 1:41

Release Date: 8/19/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 19, 2016

There is such delicacy to the storytelling of the first act of Kubo and the Two Strings. It's as if director Travis Knight and his team of animators are approaching the narrative in the same way they must handle their cast of movable figurines. There's a level of serenity to the film's early scenes that belies the fantastical action and joke-heavy dialogue that come after that.

This is a story that's in search of itself, and it seems that screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler are fully aware of that uncertainty. The hero is a boy who is a storyteller, and while he's convinced that he's good at the process of spinning a yarn, the boy isn't so sure about how to end it.

This is partly because the story he tells is of his family, and the details of that past are sketchy. It's also, then, his story, and he definitely doesn't know how that one's going to end. Heightening the notion that the film's story is a reflection of itself, our young hero tells his tales with the use of origami figures, even as he himself has the look of being made, to some extent, out of paper.

The early scenes are a wonder, not only for the precision and scope of the animation on display but also for how much tenderness there is within them. The film opens with the awe-inspiring sight of a vast ocean, on which a woman in a small boat rides down a massive wave before splitting another in two with a burst of energy when she strums at her shamisen—a Japanese lute with three strings. The figure of the woman and the model of the boat are clearly real, tangible objects that the animators have maneuvered through stop-motion, but the water seems too fluid for that process. One of the film's great technical accomplishments is that there is such hesitation to label a specific element as either the product of puppetry or the digital rendering of computers.

The woman becomes stranded on shore when another wave sweeps over her, and we quickly realize she is not alone. An infant, which was also in the boat, cries on the sand, and the woman crawls to retrieve her son. The baby has a bandage over his left eye.

About 10 years later, the son, named Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson), lives in a cave at the top of a slanted mountain with his mother. The first scene between mother and son is wordless, as the boy awakens, prepares a boiling pot of rice, and sets two places on the floor of the cave. He gently wakes up his sleeping mother and proceeds to feed her rice using chopsticks.

Even amidst all of the fantasy and the stories within a story and the film's technical prowess, there is, occasionally, time for a moment such as this one. For all of the magnificent sights of lushly detailed backdrops and intricately designed creatures, perhaps the film's most memorable image comes, not from some effect or giant monster, but from a brief, close-up shot of the mother's face as her son feeds her. A misplaced grain of rice sticks to her chin, and Kubo uses his chopsticks to gently push it up to her mouth.

The film's most striking moments, then, are about compassion. The notion of a grand quest filled with plenty of violence is only fodder for Kubo's fanciful stories, with which he regales the citizens of the village at the base of the mountain. As he plays his mother's lute, sheets of paper swirl above the ground and form creatures for the origami samurai representing his deceased father to battle (There's an amusing bit involving shards of red paper exploding from the warrior's sword strikes, as a couple of audience members gag). Such activities are merely a game and the stuff of legends for Kubo, but as one might expect, he becomes part of such a tale of adventure with plenty of violence and a few bodies of otherworldly figures left in his wake.

After an attack on the village by his mystical aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara), Kubo finds himself in a vast, snowy wasteland with Monkey (Charlize Theron, providing an exceptional vocal performance), a figurine that has come to life. Monkey is a devout practitioner of tough love, because it's her job to protect Kubo from harm. They're shortly joined by Beetle (voice of Matthew McConaughey), an amnesic samurai who has become, well, a big, armored beetle. Beetle's the slightly dopey comic relief, although he is quite good with a bow.

The plot involves Kubo and his companions searching this land of folklore Japan for three items that belonged to the boy's father—a sword, a suit of armor, a helmet. The goal is to defeat Kubo's grandfather the Moon King (voice of Ralph Fiennes), who took Kubo's eye when the boy was born and, according to Kubo's mother, killed his father.

The displays of compassion disappear except in brief flashes, as the film lays out setpiece after setpiece involving combat. In a way, the narrative shift in Kubo and the Two Strings is to be expected. While that shift diminishes the tone of those early scenes and slightly undermines the story's ultimate destination, there is still plenty to admire from a technical standpoint. In addition to the monsters Kubo and his comrades face (giant eyeballs underwater, a ferocious dragon, and a giant skeleton), there is also the simple realization that these action scenes have been choreographed and executed with extensive, painstaking work behind the scenes.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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