The final scene of Kubo and the Two Strings has haunted me since seeing it last week. Haunted might be too strong of a term, but it has resonated with me in a way that moves me very deeply. Even a week later and in memory, the scene feels as fresh and visceral as when I first experienced it.
Sometimes it’s a single scene that can make a movie, and given what I’ve just written, you may think that about Kubo and the Two Strings. That’s not really the case here though. Everything that leads up to the film’s end is as carefully constructed as the innovative filmmaking that brings Kubo’s story to life. Kubo and the Two Strings is far from the only animated family film to tackle loss; it’s even far from the only one to tackle those themes very well. Nonetheless, Kubo is exceptional in how it manages to top all expectations with brilliant filmmaking, a wonderful hero and a story that is both culturally specific yet universal.
LAIKA, the animation studio that gave us gems like Coraline and ParaNorman, produces its best film yet with Kubo. An epic in its own right, the film is set in fantastical Japan and follows the adventures of a young one-eyed boy named Kubo, who regularly delights his small town with wonderful tales set to music and magical origami during the day. At night, Kubo tends to his mother, a loving woman who is losing her memory, but is still lucid enough to tell Kubo epic tales of his deceased father’s bravery and warn Kubo to never go out at nighttime, for danger awaits him. But one night, Kubo accidentally stays out into the evening and that danger finds him in the form of the evil Moon King. An age-old vendetta forces Kubo on a journey that he never expected. With the help of fierce Monkey and loyal Beetle, Kubo must fulfill his destiny or go blind trying.
While on the surface, there is a ton of thrilling action and comical moments, it’s the film’s emotional core that drives the story forward. The villain of Kubo’s story is notorious for his coldness. The Moon King is emotionless, only driven by heartless ambitions. He’s blind to feeling, love and humanity. It’s an empty and hollow existence that threatens Kubo’s world, meaning that it isn’t only bravery that can save the day, but also kindness and compassion.
Just as captivating as the story, is the breathtaking animation utilized here. One almost needs to see this movie twice simply because giving equal attention to the great story and incredible sets is quite a task. There are some moments where the animation overtakes the story, and that harmonious balance of style and substance the film establishes gets a little off kilter. It’s a true feat of filmmaking on LAIKA’s part that you almost can’t blame them for putting forth their best work, even if it distracts from the story from time to time.
Another distraction comes from the voice cast. Game of Thrones’ Art Parkinson (the Stark kid who should have zig-zagged) voices Kubo, Charlize Theron is the voice of Monkey, while Matthew McConaughey bring his slow, easy and recognizable cadence to Beetle. The rest of the voice cast includes Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, and Rooney Mara. Given that the story is set in Japan with Japanese characters, it’s a missed opportunity to not cast more Asian actors to voice these characters. While McConaughey and Theron add some star power to a movie that doesn’t have the backing of a major studio, their voice work here wafts of inauthenticity.
Kubo and the Two Strings remains an astounding film. It’s powerful, moving and downright magical – the type of film that makes you wish time travel was real just so you could go back and experience it for the first time again.
Kubo and the Two Strings opens Friday, August 19 in theaters.