Worth-A-Watch? Kubo is an incredible visual feast, I would not advise missing, accompanied by a, less stunning, but wholly enjoyable delight of a story.
At the very outset of the film Kubo tells us if we need to blink do it now. Its good advice. The stop motion animation, created by Laika Studios, is utterly captivating and you won’t want to miss a moment of its sumptuous beauty. The most striking thing about Kubo and the Two Strings is its art style, every character and set was hand crafted. I’m a firm believer that the effort, love and dedication that goes into the creation of such a world nourishes a film. There aren’t enough similes or superlatives to truly convey how beautiful Travis Knight’s debut film is, but I’ll try. It looks like the most magnificent Kurosawa film shot in paper.
The greatest disappointment is that, for a film so much about storytelling (indeed telling stories with magical origami bought to life by the power of a magical lute), it is heavy on the magic but, at times the story telling is flimsy and simplistic. Young Kubo played with great intricacy and warmth by Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones) discovers he isn’t the ordinary boy, who lives with his seemingly possessed mother in a mountain cave playing a magic lute that brings paper to life, that he thinks he is. In fact he is a part of a great dynasty tied to the stars by dark magic and blissful betrayal. He fails to adhere to his mothers, Gremlin style warnings, and goes out after dark he is thrust into a grand quest to find his father’s armour and battle an almighty foe The Moon King, a surprisingly underwhelming but undeniably creepy Ralph Fiennes (Skyfall, Schindler’s List).
Particularly in the first half of the film, prior to a brutal and quite heart-racing scene in the Lake of Eyes, everything comes a little too easily for young Kubo. In fact it reminds me of Nathan Drake, the intrepid explorer of the Uncharted series, tumbling elegantly through a convoluted set piece. Rather than feeling like a ferocious and frustrating set of coming of age trials, it feels for some time like the protagonist has little agency, or urgency to grow to the task. Bumbling through the magnanimous forces of evil with an ease that somewhat takes away the important hint of real danger. He quickly accumulates a rag tag family. The brilliantly layered and three dimensional Monkey, voiced with great force by Charlize Theron (Mad Max, Prometheus), steals the show and is the most charming and consistent element of the whole piece. Monkey is complimented well by Mathew McConaughey’s (True Detective, Dallas Buyer’s Club) Beetle, a delightfully comic character imbued with a wonderful sense of melancholy. It is astonishing the delicacy of the relationship between these two fantastical puppets. Despite the generally very high quality of the voice acting, it is still somewhat irritating that the studio decided to use almost exclusively Western actors, as I believe having more genuine Japanese voices and actors involved could have enhanced the works’ feel. George Takeii (Star Trek), one of the only Asian actors, is lamentably underused given his wonderful rich voice.
Once all the pieces are in place the film finds its velocity and depth, alongside a set of teeth which it uses savagely. The longest and scariest of these teeth belong to The Sisters, who pursue Kubo throughout, are the stuff of nightmares with their billowing black smoke, keenly sharp knives, disembodied voices and painted unmoving faces (only made more terrifying when their mask cracks). Superhero franchises should be taking note of how fantasy villains should be done. It’s not enough to create a monster of unimaginable power and set them loose without motivation. Kubo draws on the finest fantastical elements, and one of these is family. The characters are wonderfully interconnected and, as only the finest fantasy achieves, their motivations are personal and realistic, their struggle becomes a symbol for a far more philosophical discussion and their powers and actions are awe-inspiring. It doesn’t make the mistake of slavishly trying to explain the fantastic with crass realism. Following instead its own beautiful (a word I’m struggling not to overuse) poetic necessity, building its plot from symbolic and striking images and actions. It consistently strikes the tone of ancient tale telling, the strangest reaction to which was an overwhelming urge to listen to Wu Tang Clan.
Kubo is as much an exploration of the importance of humanity, love and light as it is a tale of a young man earning his place in the world. The story is enchanting and poignant, though sometimes overwrought. The ending in particular is a little too on-the-nose, sharpening the message of the story into a point that stabs, noticeably, and tiresomely. Despite this, throughout the film there are some brilliantly funny lines and well timed moments of comedy (incredibly so for a cast of puppets) that undercut the prosaics and make the characters feel real and relatable. Kubo and the Two Strings is an incredible achievement for a first time director and I, for one, look forward to his second film.