The magic in Kubo and the Two Strings from Laika, the animators behind Coraline and ParaNorman, is the ability the studio has to create worlds literally out of whole cloth, or paper, or giant skeletons with swords sticking out of their heads. Part traditional stop-motion, part computer animation, the movement, the color, the imagination and skill that went into every single detail, gives the film a sweeping, tactile feel. Yet the pleasing part about watching a film like Kubo, although geared toward children, is the way it captures an adult’s imagination as well. Unlike the constant bombast of comedic throw offs from studios like DreamWorks, this delightful animated film doesn’t rely on a constant stream of silly gags and over the top characters to get kids’ attention. It relies on what makes any big film great: story, character, and a sense of wonder.
The story focuses on a Kubo, a boy with the ability to bring his origami to life with his guitar. During the day he puts on a show for the local villagers, and at night he takes care of his ailing mother in a cave. Her memory comes and goes as she damaged her head protecting Kubo from her sinister father, the Moon King, and her twin sisters (who look like something out of a creepy anime). Her mother tells him that his father, a great samurai warrior, died protecting him from their villainy. One night, the time of day his mother tells him he should never be out in the open or his grandfather and aunts will come for him, he tries to pray to his father like the other villagers do for their deceased loved ones. His mother’s words ring true and so begins an adventure for Kubo to find his father’s magical armor to be able to combat his relatives. He is accompanied by a talking monkey and a man-like beetle. They fight the aforementioned giant skeleton, (sixteen feet tall and weighing 400 pounds, the skeleton is considered by the studio to be the largest stop-motion puppet ever made) orb-like eyes under a dark ocean, and of course, the main villains of the piece.
To say more would spoil the story and the fun. The characters are voiced by some of Hollywood’s top talent, including Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, and Rooney Mara. The characterizations aren’t flashy or gimmicky. The colorful story consistently amazes with its outstanding visuals. Likened to the quest stories of folklore, Kubo uses the Japanese setting well, outlining part of its culture and architecture with loving detail. There are many spirited moments of humor and adventure. Above all, it urges you to remember what it’s like to be a kid. Some kids might find some of it a bit scary, but more so than that, a warning to parents to be prepared to talk their children about death as that is a big part of the story. I commend the creators for taking that risk and not suppressing that aspect of the film. This is a magical adventure, but it captures real truths – ones that can be painful, but with this story and these characters – can be a cathartic experience for everyone. And it’s a fine thing to behold.