“If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see no matter how unusual it may seem. If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.”
In a land where magic and heroism are as common as tradition and friendship, young Kubo (Art Parkinson, Game of Thrones) makes a living telling magical stories with his shamisen and origami. He lives at the top of a great hill with his mother, who is slowly losing her sense of self. During the day, he makes a meager living busking his tales to the delight of his small seaside village. His favorite subject is Hanzo, a legendary samurai warrior and the magical items he must collect to defeat the monsters and square off against the Moon King. He is mysterious because he must be home before dark to avoid the searching eye of his grandfather, and his stories more often than not are never finished. He takes care of his mother, and when she is lucid she tells him great stories of his father, using magic of her own to bring their little family as close as she can.
During the festival of Obon, honoring the dead with lanterns and prayers, Kubo is caught out after dark and finds himself in the care of no-nonsense Monkey (Charlize Theron, Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)) and capable but dense Beetle (Matthew McConaughey, True Detective). Together they travel to collect the items needed to defend against his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes, Harry Potter series) and the malevolent Sisters (Rooney Mara, Pan (2015)), who want his Kubo’s one remaining eye. As Kubo’s magic grows their journey becomes more perilous, even as he learns of his beginnings and the family that can only live on in stories.
Visually, Kubo and the Two Strings is like wandering through ukiyo-e paintings with bright colors and cultural immersion. You don’t have to know a thing about Japan to understand the players or the setting, because as personal as this film is – it’s universal in its emotion.
And you don’t have to know what any of that means to appreciate the world Travis Knight and the SPX team build with the stop motion animation Laika Entertainment has become known for. Monkey’s fur, Beetle’s eyes, and the monstrous creatures the trio must fight feel as real as flesh and blood. Nothing about this world feels 2-D. Screenwriters, Marc Haimes and Christ Butler (ParaNorman (2012)) draw inspiration from human experience, as well as Akira Kurosawa and Studio Ghibli giving full dimension and life to wood, fabric and fiberglass.
Before you throw your hands up and saw, “whoa, whoa, sister – this sounds a little too heavy for my kids” I must remind you, Dear Reader, that this movie wouldn’t be any less dense if Kubo were a talking mouse or bunny rabbit. Like Laika’s other films, Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012), Kubo and the Two Strings has dark overtones of loss and death, but they aren’t so oppressive the characters become ghosts in the landscape. Kids in extraordinary situations and their ability to roll with the abrupt change draw you in with their depth and make you laugh with the simple delights of Beetle’s buffoonery or Kameyo’s (Brenda Vaccaro, Johnny Bravo) practical views on pretty much everything.
Kubo and the Two Strings is about family: the parts that make the whole, the roots that feed the tree, and the simple destiny we all have.
You have to see this movie, and I’m not spending another 300 words convincing you when you could be grabbing your keys and loading the car with the kids right now. It’s a fantasy samurai epic with monkeys and magic, and there is no better way to spend family night – or date night. It does have that air of romanticism only the best fantasy epics can create.
Kubo and the Two Strings is rated PG for fantasy violence, scary imagery, and intense peril, and is a strong recommend for me.