Review: Kubo & The Two Strings

Kubo and the two strings art poster

Remember when I said none of the Game of Thrones dude had yet headlined a critically acclaimed movie? Well, turns out I was damn wrong. Kubo, played by Art Parkinson (Dracula Untold) – a minor character from ‘Thrones, turns in a fantastic performance in this Movie of the Year contender. I bet you’re desperate to find out more, right? Of course you are.

As a young kid I remember watching Jason and the Argonauts and being blown away by all the wizardry; the giant sea dude, the titan, the fighting skeletons. I hadn’t seen anything like that before, save in cartoons. I made my Mum promise to take me to the “island of the titans” to see the giant metal body of Talos, I was that obsessed. That’s right, I was a dumb kid and I believed it that much. She actually promised to take me too, the lying bitch.

I think I bought into it so much because Ray Harryhausen (the God of Stop-Motion Animation) infused such a life into his model work. They looked and felt like physical creatures. There was a tactile presence that even modern day CGI can’t replicate. That’s the special quality about stop-motion animation. But it’s an all-in play. If the filmmakers aren’t strapped in for the long haul there’s gonna be blood. Very few feature length films of this type get made, probably because it’s so damn painstaking and takes so damn long. So when one does come around, you better put down your coffee son, sit up in your chair and take notice. Respect will be due.

Kubo & The Two Strings is no exception.

It’s impressive from the beginning. We’re on a tiny ship in the middle of some crazy storm. Massive jagged waves are crashing about and the sky is torn by thunder and lightning. A woman, Sariatu (Charlize Theron – Mad Max Fury Road), desperately battles against it all whilst cradling a screaming child. She can’t resist the seemingly supernatural elements for long though, and the boat dramatically capsizes.

We’re immediately shown that this film isn’t fucking around as Sariatu smashes her head on some rocks (cloud of blood included). She manages to survive, and she, along with the remains of her ship and her child, wash up on some shore. She crawls to the baby as the water rushes in to take it. Grabbing hold, she falls unconscious as we get our first look at the babe, a level one Kubo. He’s screaming and he’s only got one eye (I told you this film doesn’t play nice).

Kubo and the two strings sariatsu


Years later and Kubo is now a boy. He looks after Sariatu whom is brandamaged(!) after the accident. She is a mute of some sorts, whom doesn’t talk or move, save for fleeting moments in the evening. Kubo tends to her, feeding and cleaning up after her. His missing eye is shielded by a badass eyepatch. But unlike Snake Plissken, he also hides it behind an emo-fringe, sort of like that singer from the 90’s (Gabrielle?).

He’s kind of like Anakin from Episode 1. He’s this young punk kid whom thrives in this world of adults on his own merits. He also has a mysterious past and even more unusual destiny. Unlike Anakin though he isn’t a totally annoying dork. You don’t want to spoon out his eyeballs (or eyeball). Not because you feel sorry for him, you know, for being disabled, but because he’s actually a pretty nice kid. He looks after his mad Mum. Yeah, Anakin’s Mum was a bit mental too (yeah right you just “fell” pregnant. Heard that one before, you slag), but Kubo probably has to wipe Sariatu’s ass. That dark.

To earn a living he busks in a nearby village with his shamisen (a traditional Japanese three-stringed guitar). He tells stories using origami creations, magically empowered with life, to enrapture his audience that includes Hosato (George Takei – Star Trek), Hashi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa – Mortal Kombat) and Kameyo (Brenda Vaccaro – Midnight Cowboy). His story speaks of a heroic warrior, Hanzo (his father) who seeks out three wondrous items (a sword, some armor and a helmet) so he may fight and defeat the evil Moon King, whom stole Kubo’s eye.

This is clearly some fable retold by a wistful child, we reason. But before the tale can end dusk falls and Kubo remembers his promise to his Mother – he must always return home before it gets dark. See, these aren’t just stories. His mother was one of three daughters of the powerful Moon King. She turned her back on him and her sisters Karasu and Washi (Rooney Mara – Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) when she fell in love with Hanzo the samurai. When she had a child, the Moon King wanted the boy for himself, to mould in his own evil image. The Moon King supposedly destroyed Hanzo, forcing Sariatu to flee by boat, thus landing them both in their present predicament. Despite being braindamaged she knows that if Kubo stays at home when the moon shines, the king will never find him.

Kubo doesn’t know the danger that he’s in though. All he knows is that he can never finish his Father’s tale as he doesn’t know how it ended. His Mum can’t remember. All she recalls is that she loves him and loved Hanzo. But that isn’t enough for Kubo. He’s told of a Bon Festival, a local traditional whereby you can speak to dead loved ones one night a year. As the villagers chat with their deceased family, Kubo stands alone, his lantern for Hanzo getting no response. He’s angry. Maybe the stories were all bullshit?

kubo and the two strings sisters

Holy shit Kubo, it’s getting dark and you’re not home! The Twisted Sisters find him before he can get to shelter. Two mask-wearing ninja witches, they’re super creepy and will likely make any actual children watching wet their pants. As they reach for him Sariatu suddenly appears to his aid. Using the last of her magic she sends Kubo far away, her final words to him that he must find the magical weapons of his Father – the same mentioned in his story.

He awakens in a distant land, but not alone. The snow monkey charm his Mother had given him has come alive. Monkey (Charlize Theron) is really Kubo’s Mum. We figure this out pretty quick, but Kubo doesn’t. It’s pretty obvious. What isn’t so obvious initially is who the hell Beetle is. Beetle (Matthew McConaughey – Interstellar) is an amnesiac samurai, cursed by some evil power (guess who) into the form of a stag beetle. He believes he was Hanzo’s apprentice, and swears fealty to Kubo, the son of his former master.

Together they quest for the three magical items needed to bring down the Moon King, during which they undergo some serious peril, get to know each other, and grow and shit. Typical storytelling stuff. It’s only when MAJOR SPOILERS HEREAFTER that Monkey and Beetle (who was really Hanzo all along), get brutally slain that it all comes down to Kubo to save the day. But can he do it alone…?

Kubo and the two strings kubo beetle and monkey

This film had me by the balls from the beginning. The violent entry had me hooked. I even committed an unholy act by asking my girlfriend why Kubo (still a baby) only had one eye. I only ever ask questions if I’m engaged and with someone who has previously seen the film. She’d sold it to me because she’d taken a bunch of kids (she’s a teacher) to see it at the cinema. Half of them cried. That’s the kind of animated film I like – something that will make some pussy child wet the bed. Make no mistake, were I to sire a baby in the future, they wouldn’t be doing any such thing themselves. They’ll be raised on Schwarzenegger early on. The only tears they’ll see are from the lamentations of their enemies. Back on point though, the knowledge that a mere animated movie (some would argue the most childish form of movie) rendered some weak child-creature to tears got my attention.

And Kubo is an animated film. No shit, right? You have to appreciate that “animated film” has multiple meanings these days. Perhaps it’s most common incarnation would the Disney Pixar/Dreamworks style. And if you’re some child reading this (good boy/girl) that’s probably the kind of film you’re familiar with – something rendered by millions of artists using computers and software. And that is no mean feat. Apparently it took an entire workforce and the CPU power of Skynet to generate the hair on Sullie in Monsters Inc. There is no less artistry involved either. It all comes from drawings and sketches originally. The DNA is the same. So why doesn’t it feel so…hands on? Maybe because we know that computers take out a lot of the trial and error. We (foolishly) think it somehow makes it easier.

Kubo and the two strings monkey

Second to CGI animation, we have the original hand-drawn stuff. The Old School Disney, the Ghibli work, Ralph Bakshi’s back catalogue. This comprises of thousands upon thousands of individually drawn cells, each captured frame-by-frame. Laborious is a good way to describe this process. But it isn’t the hardest either. You’re still working on a 2D plane. A bad drawing can be rubbed out and re-drawn. It isn’t as hardcore as stop-motion animation.

Stop-motion animation is the use of a model or maquette that is painstakingly adjusted in each frame, just like standard animation. However by using 3D models you have the added difficulty of having (usually), fully realized backgrounds, lighting effects and camera angles all added to the mix as well. It’s a monumental amount of work. Kubo and the Two Strings is one such film, and they are rare. You might get one major, feature length film a year. Few studios still crank stuff like this out. Fewer still specialize in it.

Laika, the people who hand-crafted (literally) Kubo, are one such studio. With a history dating back to the 90’s, Laika only made it’s first film, Coraline, in 2009. Since then they’ve only released three other films (Kubo included); ParaNorman & The Boxtrolls. That’s four films in 8 years. To put it into perspective, Disney, whom we all see as the Jesus Christ of animation studios, made 24 in the same amount of time, only one of which being a stop motion movie.

I argued in my article celebrating Fire & Ice that animation has often been derided as a lesser, more childish medium of movie-making. I suppose it is because so many of us grow up watching cartoons. Of course, the Japanese have always considered animation equal among storytelling methods. Their anime famously bridges the gap between child and adulthood in terms of content. Us Westerners are simply behind when it comes to this sort of thing. Similar to Kubo, Laika’s earlier efforts ParaNorman and Coraline both tip-toe around the edge of being slightly too dark and twisted for kids. I think they took a back-step with the Boxtrolls, though, which was effectively a kids movie (reflected in the reviews) or family movie, as they call it. When they say it’s a “family movie” you know it’s for kids.

kubo and the two strings fight gif

To put Kubo into a perhaps more familiar perspective, I’d describe it as stylized similar to Nightmare Before Christmas, but thankfully not rife with annoying songs (okay, this one isn’t too bad). And despite what the fanboys and girls will say, Nightmare isn’t really very gritty or adult. Kubo is a type of film a parent would test a child with. “Would they be able to handle this?”, they’d have to question, because dark stuff happens. People die. There’s blood. There’s scary-ass ninja witches. Maybe this explains the poor box office performance – it struggles to find an audience. It’s not a kids film, but could be mistaken for one. It’s an adult film, but doesn’t outwardly appear to be one. Which is a damn shame, as it’s a beautiful film. I’m talking on both a visual and thematic levels here, people.

While Nightmare took the weird mind of Tim Burton as inspiration, Kubo feeds off a very Eastern aesthetic. It’s a samurai film. The music, the art-style, it all reflect this. The Moon King, in his final bad guy form is a classic Japanese dragon (albeit glowing). What else does it have? Those big straw hats worn by samurai. Origami. Ninjas. If you like this kind of stuff (I do), then you’ll fucking love the reverence Kubo & the Two Strings pays.

kubo and the two strings group shot

How to Train Your Dragon could be considered the brother-in-arms to Kubo. Both eschew ancient cultures (vikings and samurai) with magical elements. Where they diverge is in the tone. HTTYD has a lighter touch, and while getting dark are parts (matey-boy loses his leg in one part), it also has lots of silly-looking dragons for kids to laugh at. Kubo doesn’t change tone. It stay’s stone cold serious throughout. The lightest Kubo get’s is George Takei’s character saying “Oh my”, and only adults are gonna get why that’s silly.

Speaking of the voice-work, everyone is strong here. Parkinson really gets the nuance of the part. Surely a talent to watch as he ages. We know Theron never phones in anything, and she nails two roles here as well – the confused mother and the badass Monkey. With McConaughey I’m always concerned that he’s gonna sort of…McConaughey his way through the performance. You know, sort of mumble and be really intense. But here he’s much lighter. It’s obviously him, but his distinctive-ass voice is underplayed thankfully. It’s like it’s the Sugar-Free Matthew McConaughey. Diet McConaughey.

I knew Rooney Mara could do badass, thanks to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but I didn’t know she could play evil. The sisters are frankly the best part of this film. Unfortunately, they overshadow Ralph Fiennes (The Lego Batman Movie) as the Moon King. His appearance is just too late on and too…uninspired for it to have a huge impact. But that’s only a minor gripe. I can’t think of any thing else I didn’t like. My feeling was one of awe and appreciation.

Kubo & The Two Strings is a living, breathing work of art. It was made with the utmost care and most of all, soul which it really shows across the entire movie. It is funny, moving, action packed, awe-inspiring. It’s not merely a great stop-motion movie, it’s a great damn movie full stop. Get it watched.

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