A beautiful woman navigates the seas one stormy night, her eyes heavy with sorrow and exhaustion. Powerful currents pull her back towards danger, but fear pushes her forward. A wave rises forty, fifty feet above her, and as it is about to crash down on her, she holds up a pick and strikes her three-stringed shamisen (Japanese lute).
The sound waves slice through the water, and the woman reaches the shore. She unwraps a bundle of cloth, and inside is an infant Kubo, a bandage over his left eye.
“My grandfather took something from me,” Kubo narrates, “but that was the least of it.”
Laika Studio’s Kubo and the Two Strings opens with a short but powerful introduction.
Already we know this is some good old-fashioned storytelling. Magic? Check. Runaway? Check. Mysterious scar/injury? Check. Tyrannical male relative? You betcha.
From here on out, Kubo embarks on a quest to find a magic set of armor, and each stage of his journey introduces an eccentric sidekick.
“I. Love. You….Monkey?”
It’s difficult to figure out which character I love best from Laika Studios’ Kubo and the Two Strings. And what a beautiful problem that is to have. On the one hand there’s the gruff but completely lovable Monkey voiced by Charlize Theron.
On the other hand there’s Matthew McConaughey’s equally lovable and endearingly dim-witted Beetle, a six-legged bug-human-hybrid with a heart of gold. And, of course, there’s Kubo (Game of Thrones’ Art Parkinson) himself: a one-eyed boy who carries far too many sorrows on his young shoulders.
Laika’s gorgeous animation style captures both the love and ferocity within each character: Monkey’s fur looks soft enough to touch but her steely expression holds no softness.
Beetle’s armor is dark and unbreakable, but his eyes are bright and often…vacant. Kubo lets his hair fall around his face in a carefree rather than morose way. A great responsibility weighs on him, but he stops to marvel at the music and magic of the world.
And that’s another great aspect of the film: its magic. Many sci-fi and fantasy films these days over-explain why a magic or alternate world is the way it is. Sometimes the lore is really interesting and sometimes it’s an annoying, unnecessary exposition.
Kubo, however, keeps it to a minimum.
That’s pretty much how the magic works for the rest of the film. Where did the shamisen come from and how does it work? What are the limits or possibilities of Kubo and his mother’s powers? Is the magic infinite? Does it drain the user?
The ambiguity, in a way, gives more credibility to this beautiful and fantastical world that director Travis Knight has created.
Where Kubo falls short though is its timing. At an hour and forty minutes it’s longer than the average kids’ movie, but the final act felt a bit rushed.
Monkey is introduced early in the film, so she has a good amount of time to evolve and have a strong character arc.
Beetle, however, shows up significantly later and his arc is pushed aside so that he can continue to be the boneheaded comic relief.
Honestly, it’s pretty cute and I wouldn’t give up any Beetle screen time, but his “big moment” (I can’t say much more without spoiling it) is incredibly rushed and short-lived as the story jumps back to Kubo’s quest.
Then there’s the big bad villain, Kubo’s sinister grandfather (voiced by Ralph Fiennes).
Ralph Fiennes is always good at bringing the terror and malevolence to a character, so he’s nothing to sneeze at when he finally confronts Kubo.
However, the fight is a little…awkward. The first blow Kubo deals looks like the death stroke, but Grandfather seems unaffected. And every subsequent blow seems less and less effective.
But the themes of love and acceptance to bring the movie back to its warm, gooey center just in time for the credits to start rolling.
Ultimately, the first eighty minutes were spectacular, amazing, movie-going bliss while the last twenty minutes were a brief hangover. Despite my hatred of hangovers, Kubo and the Two Strings is a drink I would gladly have again.
★★★★ Kubo and the Two Strings has its narrative shortcomings, but they are overshadowed by heartwarming characters brought to life by mesmerizing feats of stop-motion technology.