Whatever anyone thinks of the direction of movies since the new millennium, when film scholars look at animated cinema, they will undoubtedly look on the last decade or two as the maturation and evolution of mainstream animated filmmaking. From Pixar becoming a household name, to Dreamworks bringing a few stonking series’ to life, to Illumination Entertainment’s Minions swallowing up pop culture and masterful studios like Studio Ghibli finally attaining the notoriety they fully deserve. However, one form of animation that has thrived in a CG heavy market is stop motion, thanks in no small part to the effort of studios like Laika. After making their name with Coraline, the studio has consistently delivered with every offering, with 2012’s Paranorman and especially the sublime 2014 film The Boxtrolls. And now we arrive at the gates of Laika’s most ambitious outing yet in Kubo and The Two Strings, which not only delivers but also might just be the best film of 2016.
The story centres on Kubo (Art Parkinson), a young boy who lives in a cave near the sea and cares for his mentally ailing mother by night and by day brings Origami to life and tells thrilling stories in a nearby village for money. However one night, the past catches up with Kubo as sinister presences related to he and his mother come calling to finish the job they started years ago and throw the young boy into a quest, alongside Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a samurai warrior turned Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), that will take Kubo on a journey to fight this darkness and uncover the extent of his power and humanity. Travis Knight’s film is not only the stuff dreams are made of but also is a dream itself, delivering a boundlessly imaginative undertaking that deserves the attention of a huge audience.
The plot is indebted to not only Japanese legends and stories but also Greek mythology and cinematic influences as wide as Clash Of The Titans and Akira Kurosawa. Despite these influences though, Marc Haimes and Chris Butler’s screenplay is breathtakingly original and emotionally rich. This adventure is one that gave this writer a serious case of goosebumps around 5 or more times and is full of wonder and pure cinema magic. Watching Kubo and The Two Strings is like watching a tapestry of ancient times coming to life before your eyes and what is so fascinating about this film is how it conveys its story. Kubo’s stories of fantasy are not just that, they are his life and as the film progresses, we come to live his story with him, feeling and discovering every tear jerking twist and dangerous encounter, as he does, unsure of what comes next.
The film is about so many things but the theme of memory being more powerful than the sadness that comes with loss is one that stands out in a spiritual ideology, one that gives the viewer constant hope and jubilation. This is a film about the joy of living and creating our own stories, and keeping the stories of those we lose alive. No matter how dark or scary the film gets, with some tremendous creature designs – a skeleton sequence mid-film simply astounds – on display, the script never loses its constant sense of fun or joy, with laughs aplenty throughout. And this mastery of tone and pace is mostly down to just how comfortable you are in the company of these characters.
The characters are wondrously realized, with magnificent vocal performances to match the immaculate and gorgeous stop-motion techniques (stay after the credits to see just how painstaking one sequence was to create). Art Parkinson is delightful as Kubo, who is a brimming core to the movie and his story (as well as his character) is one that develops so organically, with us eager to find out why as a baby his eye was taken, the extent of his magical power (as he wields his Shamisen and brings his origami to life) and who these dark forces are in relation to him. Charlize Theron is terrific in a maternal capacity as Monkey, a role so clever and layered and yet that allows time for some brilliantly comic lines, speaking of which Matthew McConaughey’s amnesiac Samurai turned Beetle is a joy and a real lovably kind knucklehead and loyal skilled warrior. Then there are other terrific turns by Ralph Fiennes as the villainous Raiden The Moon King and Rooney Mara is simply sadistic as the frightening sisters that are the Moon King’s daughters.
We are being purposefully restrained in revealing too much about the characters and their stories because there is so much to tell and so much we encourage you to discover for yourself. Kubo and The Two Strings’ animation surely ranks as some of the best in this field, with more eye absorbing imagery and scenes of stop motion enchantment than could be listed on a 4-mile long scroll. And next to the visual excellence is a score by Dario Marianelli, that is a perfect match and sweeps you along on this spellbinding tale. Emotive, human, witty, powerful and spectacular, Kubo is a film you don’t come out of, so much as one you sit in appreciation of for a few moments as its credits roll. Like all great art it looks astounding and the love and passion is evident in every detail, from its adoringly crafted animation to its poignant and witty writing, to its superb characters.
Practically faultless and utterly magical, you owe it to your heart and soul to witness what just might be the greatest film released this year. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be amazed, a masterpiece.
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: TRAVIS KNIGHT / SCREENPLAY: MARC HAIMES, CHRIS BUTLER / STARRING: ART PARKINSON, CHARLIZE THERON, MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY, RALPH FIENNES, ROONEY MARA / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected Rating: 8/10