Director: Travis Knight
Writers: Marc Haimes (screenplay), Chris Butler (screenplay)
Stars: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey
Kubo and the Two Strings is the latest film from talented stop-motion animators, Laika studios. It follows the story of a young boy who is forced to flee his evil grandfather with his mother, after having his left eye vengefully taken out. Able to weave magic by plucking away at the strings on his shamisen, he endures a journey full of hardship, loneliness and familial ghosts from his past. Never complaining, however, he shows a wisdom way beyond his years, leaning on his memories and love to guide him through.
It begins with Kubo (Art Parkinson) and his mother fleeing their evil family on a small boat, caught in a choppy and dangerous storm. “If you must blink, do it now” our protagonist narrates as the pair encounter trouble, both being flung into the water before ending washed up on a beach. Kubo’s small form is seen beneath a blanket, his mother quickly rushing to comfort him, before the film cuts to the present.
The two of them are next seen living an isolated existence in a small cave, high upon a large, jutting rock formation, near the shore. Kubo’s mother by this point is a pale shadow of her former self and looking frail, exhausted and extremely forgetful. Kubo’s loneliness is palpable in these early stages, which perhaps explains his regular jaunts to the nearby village. On the first visit we see him make, he puts on a magical show for the residents, using his shamisen (a lute like instrument) to bring wonderful, complex, little, origami characters to life, as he displays quite the talent for storytelling. Time eases by rather quickly, as the travails of the small warrior play out, until finally darkness approaches, forcing Kubo to suddenly end the show and make a quick exit, much to the chagrin of the villagers. Returning to his mother, we are given a small insight into their backstory through her sad stories of his late father, Hanzo, a brave samurai warrior. She then provides a gentle warning to her son not to remain out too late in the darkness or his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), will come for his other eye.
Kubo then returns to the village, presumably at some point in the near future and speaks with the same kindhearted, old lady, seen previously. He is encouraged to stay later to enjoy the firework shows and other festivities taking places during the celebrations. Ignoring the previous warning from his mother, Kubo becomes distracted, emotional and quickly frustrated at his failed attempts to communicate with his dad. He loses track of time, as he forlornly watches the other villagers lanterns fill with light after seemingly successful contacts are made with their loved ones. Looking up he quickly realises his error as the light within the lanterns extinguish and the cold, shrill, laughs from the Sisters, his two aunts, echo through the wood. A quick chase takes place before his mother makes a intervention and uses the last of her magic to save him, sacrificing herself in the process.
When Kubo awakes, the sight of a snowy tundra meets his eyes and before him is a talking monkey, brought to life from the small token he carried everywhere, who goes by the name of Monkey (Charlize Theron), who’d have guessed it? She tells with him to hurry and follow her or risk being discovered again by his aunts and grandfather. Seeking refuge within a cave, the pair eat, whilst the now inquisitive Kubo is given three questions to be answered by his new guardian. Echoing his mothers last words, he is told that he must find three pieces of Hanzo’s armour in order to defeat the Moon King. These being; The Sword Unbreakable, The Armour Impenetrable and The Helmet Invulnerable. Heading out on their quest, guided by an origami samurai come compass, it doesn’t take long for them to cross paths with the clumsy, multi-talented, forgetful and also extremely likeable half-man/half-beetle creature, known as Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Sharing a vague connection to Hanzo himself, he’s extremely keen to join in on the whole adventure business.
Together this unlikely trio set about collecting each armour piece, enduring several battles along the way towards the climatic finale. Whether it be fighting a gargantuan skeleton, whilst Kubo tries to find the Sword Unbreakable lodged in its skull or the duel fight in the Long Lake between Kubo, Beetle and an ensnaring underwater creature whilst Monkey battles one of the aunts on a magical leaf boat above the surface. Managing to collect the first two parts, Kubo is tricked by his grandfather within a dream into travelling to his fathers former fortress, believing the final piece, the helmet is there. This in fact turns out to be a trap, with the remaining aunt lying in wait for them. There’s a few good twists at this point, which I’d prefer to not to discuss in the review. But needless to say, afterwards, a lonesome Kubo, filled with more determination than ever and now aware of the actual location of the Helmet Invulnerable, thanks to his origami compass friend, heads back to the village to claim it and set up one last battle with his grandfather.
The Moon King, aka Kubo’s grandfather, predictably appears at the village, trying to smooth talk his grandson into giving up without a fight. When it becomes apparent that this won’t happen, his veil of friendliness soon slips, leading to a thunderous battle between the pair. The Moon King, transforming into a giant serpent, initially has the upper hand, before Kubo decides to ditch the armour and return to his trusted shamisen, now strung with one of his mothers hair strands. He utilises the magic of love and memories of his family within him and his fellow villagers to finally come out victorious. His grandfather doesn’t die however, but merely becomes a mortal man once again, appearing forgetful and frail, much like his mother at the beginning. The villagers decide to forgive him, rewriting an alternate background for the now apparent amnesiac. There’s just one final, poignant scene, involving Kubo returning to the river with a lantern, this time it successfully lights and he’s once again reunited with his parents.
There’s some cracking performances in this film. Art Parkinson does a wonderful job as Kubo, injecting some real emotional gravitas into the character to the extent where you can’t help but bond with him over the course of his journey. Charlize Theron is a real standout as Monkey, the no nonsense, voice of reason within the trio of heroes, whilst McConaughey portrayal of the hapless, good intentioned Beetle, helps to inject just the right amount of humour into what is at times a fairly somber affair. Ralph Fiennes is flawless in his relatively short cameo as the Moon King. He’s proven that he can nail the villain roles numerous time before and this is no different. Speaking of villains. Rooney Mara does a great job doing double duty as the Sisters. And an honourable mention to George Takei who plays a mere villager, which should help give a sense of the overall roundedness of the cast.
I can’t do a review on this film without discussing the visuals. My god the visuals on this film are tremendous. I mean really. Major kudos to Laika studios for the unbelievable attention to detail in the characters, the buildings and the creatures, especially the giant skeleton. The leaves boat that Kubo built using his magic was astonishingly beautiful looking. I really can’t praise the visuals enough here. There’s times when you forget it’s stop-motion, and the brain tricks you into believing it’s CG. I actually read there was 27 separate people working on individual scenes with a weeks work encompassing 3-4 seconds of footage, which just blew my mind.
The score is also extremely good in this film. Oscar-winning composer, Dario Marianelli, does an impressive job of building the score around the shamisen parts played by Kubo, expanding these simple little melodic lines out into a full blown orchestral score. There’s obviously a real Japanese theme, which given the films setting shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but it’s all blended together beautifully and helps add a real emotional layer to the film. As a massive Beatles fan, I have to give a shout out to the While My Guitar Gently Weeps cover by Regina Spector at the end too, which was a cool version.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching this film. I was always a fan of stop-motion stuff when I was younger, with James and the Giant Peach and the Wallace and Gromit tv series in particular being firm favourites. Admittedly, animation isn’t a genre I’ve kept up with in my adult years, though I have nothing but respect for the dedication it takes to make this style possible. It’s not just the visuals, however, it’s got a great, little story and features some brilliant performances. I’d highly recommend giving this a watch if you haven’t already.