Review: 'Kubo And The Two Strings'

Laika studios delivers once again with a magical, mystical animated journey for grown ups
The new Laika production 'Kubo and the Two Strings' isn't for kids, and that's just fine with us.

Fans are startings to look forward to a new Laika film the same way we used to look forward to a new Pixar. Kubo and the Two Strings is the newest 3-D stop-motion animation from the Portland-based studio responsible for Coraline, Paranorman and The Boxtrolls. One scene has a backdrop of what looks like the famed Rashomon gate next to sequoia-sized trees; this ravishing, delicate story nods back to Kurosawa's Rashomon, a film about the untrustworthiness of tale-tellers and what they conceal.

Kubo is a story of interlocked fictions, sometimes very sad, sometimes cryptic—not bad qualities in a cartoon. The act of storytelling is the titular character's literal weapon against death, of preservation of lives otherwise forgotten. During a fight with a monster, young Kubo is told, "This isn't one of your stories." He responds, "How do you know?"

It begins with a tempest, in which a fleeing Japanese noblewoman is in an open boat with her baby. A wave wipes her out, and knocks her head against an undersea rock. Cut to some 10 years later, where her one-eyed son Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a busking tale-teller in a small village. For coins, Kubo tells the marketplace the continuing story of a samurai questing for "the sword unbreakable, the breastplate impenetrable, and the helmet invulnerable." He uses origami props to illustrate the tales. The money buys food for his mother, who is scarred, brain-damaged and mostly mute in a nearby cave. In a moment of lucidity, the mother (voiced by Charlize Theron) warns her son never to go out at night.

We've seen that this scarred mother had powers once: when she struck the chord on her samisen, the burst of sound sliced a killer rogue wave in half. And when she has nightmares, origami paper dances around the room, twisting itself into shapes. During the obon festival, the Japanese Halloween, Kubo inevitably stays out too late to see the lanterns. On his way home, he is attacked by his mother's two terrible sisters, evil Taoist sorceresses. Kubo's mother transports her son to the land of the snows, to be cared for by a wary, ornery monkey (also Thereon), and their new friend, Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a samurai trapped in the form of a stag beetle. Like the beloved nigh-unbreakable, nigh-impenetrable and nigh-invulnerable cartoon character, The Tick, this Beetle is hearty, fearless and rather dumb. Like a real beetle, he ends up helpless on his back for a few moments.

Hidden parts of the story emerge in flashback as the quest continues. Minds clouded by magic gradually clear. The warriors encounter a colossal crimson skeleton-demon. They go undersea to get the weapons to fight Kubo's spectral grandfather the pale Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), a wizard of tremendous power.

The arc of the quest, with battle and reunion at its end—that's familiar in fantasy. What isn't familiar in Kubo is the use of Buddhist imagery, with looming statues, and a strangely craggy Mt. Fuji watching over the odd band of questers. The talking monkey observes the chance of reincarnation: "The end of one journey is the beginning of the other."

The Moon King, the puppet-show villain who becomes real, seeks possession of Kubo's remaining eye. At the risk of mixed metaphor, Kubo makes the eye not as the window of the soul, but the soul itself. It's a symbol of the essence of humanity, being able to see others, to feel compassion and love for them.

Compared with other animation studios' talking troll dolls and sausages—Kubo's director, Travis Knight, aims for a film closer to Ugetsu than Ice Age—this is fairly dense and risky material. That's one reason why it's not a movie meant for young children, plus it's far too scary for them. A good thing, then, Kubo glows with sensitivity and intelligence, with its porcelain-masked demons, its wise monkey and the imagery that recalls the heights of the fantasy era of Hong Kong—the various versions of Bride with the White Hair come to mind. Laika Studios' independence is rare in feature-length animation today—rather than topping a franchise, they seek emphasis on character, background, and the sharp wounding edge of a story.

Kubo and the Two Strings
PG; 102 Mins.

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