Director: Travis Knight
Stars: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey
“If you must blink, do it now,” the viewer is forewarned at the very top of this remarkable animated feature, followed quite wisely by, “Pay careful attention to everything you see no matter how unusual it may seem.” It’s a fitting mantra for the film; an astonishing blend of CG and stop-motion animation, one that is obsessed with duality. This too is fitting, for the film itself serves a dual role, firstly as a joyous gift to cinema audiences and secondly as a concerted effort from Laika Studios to fill the gap in the market so mournfully left by Studio Ghibli.
With this in mind then, Kubo And The Two Strings is not a film for young children. It may come from an American studio, but do not go mistaking this for the likes of Storks or Ice Age or whatever humdrum identikit CG ‘toon you’ve recently seen trailed at your local multiplex. Kubo is a far more adult proposition, dealing in more mature themes than one might initially expect. There is betrayal here. Death and mutilation. The film has sailed through the BBFC with a PG certificate as well it should, but be mindful of the little ones who may simply find this all a bit too intricate and almost certainly a bit too scary.
It begins – staggeringly – with an infant Kubo (Art Parkinson) being washed ashore during a tempest, clinging to his wounded mother (Charlize Theron). Pay careful attention and you can even see the blood from her scalp billowing freshly into the salt waters when she receives the damaging blow to her head. It becomes apparent from her words that they are fleeing Kubo’s vengeful grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who has already plucked one eye from our future hero… Remember the bit where I mentioned this might be strong stuff for the littl’uns?
Flashforward a decade or so and the pair of them live a sheltered life atop a cliff near a village. Kubo’s mother seems troubled by lost memories, confusion and despair. During the day he leaves her to visit the village, where he draws a crowd playing his shamisen, the playing of which brings magical life to his origami creations. Paper pages dance and swirl as he weaves stories for the townspeople… but he must always be home before nightfall.
Longing to contact his departed father, Kubo breaks this rule. In doing so he draws the attention of his mother’s vengeful sisters; a couple of fabulously eerie creations both voiced by Rooney Mara. His mother keeps them at bay with her magic, but in doing so casts Kubo to a distant land where he must gather the remnants of a mystical suit of armor if he hopes to stand any chance of defeating the seemingly unstoppable spirit of the Moon King.
The middle of the film – in which Kubo is joined by a talking monkey (also Theron) and samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey) – could be read as a dream in its entirety, as Kubo’s subconscious works to steal some confidence and resolve for the familial battle ahead. It plays out as a fantastic quest / coming of age story, one that also allows the animators to flex their technical bravado to the fullest. Kubo and his companions traverse wintry tundra, creepy forests and even the treacherous depths of the ocean, cycling the film through a range of colour palettes and treating us to a further menagerie of sinister monsters, each of which guard a vital piece of the mystical armour.
The film adopts / appropriates the trappings of Japanese folklore, but is an original idea spun into a wise and deceptively layered screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler. It’s heavy on symbolism and recurring imagery, to the point where surprise plot points are perhaps a shade too easy to predict once you’ve grown accustomed to the nature of the beast. Nevertheless, it’s an ambitious undertaking, not least in the sense that the narrative asks the viewer to accept a world in which more than one level of reality exists. Storytelling is at the heart of Kubo, and the film readily accepts the notion that a story can be both truth and fiction at the same time. I’m reminded of that moment in No Country For Old Men when Moss’ wife asks the sheriff whether a story he’s told her is true. He mulls it over and replies, “Well, it’s true that it’s a story.” There’s a similar playfulness at work here. In Kubo, a story is as true as it’s meaning and relevance.
The stop-motion animation is jaw-drop beautiful, often disarmingly immaculate, yet still retaining that mottled charm that speaks of the days and weeks and months of love and patience at work between the frames. The action scenes are kinetic and suspenseful. Director Travis Knight has outdone himself in terms of presentation. Even the way the characters’ hair falls had me swooning. This is undoubtedly one of the crowning achievements of the art form, and in time will likely rank alongside the likes of Akira, Princess Mononoke and Toy Story as a landmark in the history of modern animated cinema. What may sound like hyperbole becomes nothing of the sort once you’ve seen it displayed on the big screen, something I wholeheartedly encourage you to do.
There are a couple of small niggles…
Okay, maybe only really one. McConaughey’s beetle is played as the comic relief; the goofball. The actor chews through his lines with gusto, fashioning a character that recalls one of Clooney’s idiots when he’s clowning for the Coens. Yet, his moments hit as often as they miss and feel at odds with the sensibility of the rest of the film. It feels a shade like pandering to expectations – maybe even a studio note? Universal are the big guys behind distribution here. So while a little silly humour is welcome in a film that otherwise takes itself quite seriously, it also provides a conspicuous tonal imbalance.
Yet overall, the sheer majesty of this undertaking, the variety and soul of what’s being portrayed outweigh any faint grumbles that get swept along like so much insignificant flotsam. It’s possible one might argue that the cultural appropriation on display is somewhat undermined by the voice actor casting choices, but this is counteracted by the film’s tremendous reach to approach mass audiences with characters from non-white backgrounds in the first place, and, with Kubo’s missing eye, the liberal reach extends out further to the visually impaired for its full-body-squeeze. This is a film about inclusivity and is another small step on the path toward a more varied and by definition more interesting range of expression in popular cinema.
If, indeed, it turns out to be popular. Please go. In the wake of the travesty that is Sausage Party, Kubo And The Two Strings shows what real animation for grown-ups can be like. It’s about appreciable beauty. It’s about ideas. It’s about having something to save for when you think your children are old enough to digest it. It’s about wishing it had been there during your own childhood. Just not, y’know, your very early childhood.
It’s okay. You can blink now.