Movie Review: Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

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Rating: B/  I knew next to nothing about Kubo and the Two Strings going in, and I probably wouldn’t have even watched it at all had my dad not bought a copy for my sister on her 13th birthday. I had seen a few ads and knew it had a monkey in it, but overall my interest was minimal. While Kubo and the Two Strings’ plot structure is not the most original (it features a pretty standard heroes’ journey arc where Kubo picks up a couple of unlikely companions and moves from place to place trying to find items with magical properties that will help him fight an ancient evil,) it is visually astonishing and peppered with some entertaining characters and funny dialogue.

Kubo is a one-eyed adolescent boy (voiced by Art Parkinson) who lives on what appears to be an island in Japan with his mother, who suffers from recurring flashes of senility and confusion. Kubo entertains the townspeople with his magical abilities and penchant for storytelling, but his mother implores him not to stay out after dark. One day he ignores her request, and his mothers’ ghostly sisters attempt to remove Kubo’s other eye and force him to live with them in the spirit realm.

Kubo escapes thanks to his mother’s protection and finds a formidable if unusual ally in the form of a quick-tempered snow monkey (Charlize Theron.) They team up, against the monkey’s wishes, with a weird creature (Matthew McConaughey) that seems to be half man and half beetle and provides some comic relief. With the help of his companions, Kubo is on the lookout for a trifecta of magical items that will help him put his evil undead aunts in the underworld where they belong.

One of my first thoughts while watching Kubo and the Two Strings was that it was a rare example of a film that was worth buying in Blu-ray. Although the animation of the main characters is odd and occasionally a little off-putting, the scenery is breathtaking and fully worth the extra couple of dollars it would take to buy the movie in high definition. I found myself checking out of the characters and the story occasionally simply to observe the beauty of the landscapes.

The ad that was at the beginning of the movie showing how the  animators at Laika Studios (a company that specializes in stop-motion animation and is the talent behind movie such as The Boxtrolls and Paranorman) did Kubo and the Two Strings visually made the film even more fascinating on a technical level. The amount of detail that goes into stop-motion animation gives me deep respect for the people who did it. Kubo can be kind of a brat, but the interactions between him and Monkey and Beetle, who are polar opposites and clash on a nearly  constant basis, makes the movie entertaining and gives it it’s soul.

As I said before, the plot arc of this film is fairly standard, and the ending gets a little preachy. Older kids will probably like this movie and appreciate it’s blend of magic and family drama, but I’d imagine Kubo’s demonic aunts and his evil shapeshifting grandfather  would be absolute nightmare fuel for the younger set. I’m twenty-two and the aunts, with their pale featureless faces and hollowed-out eyes, were legitimately terrifying even to me.

There are definitely some scary and dark moments, and some of them come out of the blue. So if you don’t want your kid climbing into your bed at night sleepless and scared, I don’t recommend this film to anyone under the age of eight. Obviously that depends largely on the child’s emotional maturity, but I spent some of this film thinking that if I had watched it at a younger age, I probably would have shit myself.

The overall tone of this film is whimsical, but also a little on the dark side. Kubo loses both his parents and there’s a lot of sadness in the film, some of which is going to be hard on certain kids. Kubo and the Two Strings illuminates the ability of storytelling to soothe and transport it’s audience. There’s a certain spirituality there too, with the spirits of loved ones providing closure and comfort to the characters.

Despite my initial disinterest, I am glad I watched this movie; I liked it more than Paranorman and about as much as Coraline (I only watched the first ten minutes or so of The Boxtrolls so I can’t give a definitive opinion either way on that film.) The characters are appealing, the visuals are striking, and the occasional humor hit my funny bone more often than not. The voice actors all do great jobs, including the kid who voices Kubo. Most of all, it manages to invoke a genuine sense of wonder as well as a genuine sense of scariness and dread. Mixing elements of both the dark and the light to startling effect, Kubo and the Two Strings is a love letter to storytellers everywhere, and a treat for both the old and the young.

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