Film Review | Kubo and the two strings

If there’s to be a complaint to be had towards Kubo and the Two Strings is that it’s a bit too short • 4/5 stars

27 September 2016, 8:53am
To Boldly Go: Kubo and company make way in one of the many lavish vistas crafted by Laika and its army of animators
To Boldly Go: Kubo and company make way in one of the many lavish vistas crafted by Laika and its army of animators
By Marco Attard

There’s a magic in animation, be it ink and paints on cellulose film or the digital figures on a computer screen. But no form of animation is as magical as stop motion, where tiny manipulations bring actual models to life. Thus it’s fitting that this big screen film featuring this technique stars an animator of sorts, as the titular Kubo can magically bring origami figures to life, all in the name of telling a story. 

And it’s just as well that the protagonist of Kubo and the Two Strings is a storyteller, as this is a film that’s as much about storytelling as it is the quest suggested by a bare-bones plot synopsis. The one-eyed Kubo (Art Parkinson) makes a living out of playing the shamisen (a Japanese two-stringed instrument similar to a banjo) while retelling the stories told by his ailing mother - action-packed tales starring his late father, a legendary samurai known as Hanzo, and his quest to defeat the malevolent Moon King.

Things go Ray Harryhausen-esque turn when a giant skeleton shows up
Things go Ray Harryhausen-esque turn when a giant skeleton shows up
Not sure whether to believe his not always lucid mother’s warnings of never leaving the house after dark, Kubo heads out at night in order attempt to communicate with his father’s souls. And that’s when the mother is proven right, as he ends up facing a pair of witches (both voiced by Rooney Mara) - twin daughters of the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who wants Kubo’s remaining eye. The mother intervenes, using the last of her power to teleport her son away from the village with a quest - the recovery of his late father’s sword, helm and armour, in order to face the Moon King once and for all. So far, so very Campbellian (as in Joseph Campbell, of The Hero of a Thousand Faces fame). 

Of course, any wannabe hero needs companions, and Kubo gets three - a tiny samurai able to point the way to the three artefacts, a stern yet capable Monkey (Charlize Theron) and an amnesiac oversized beetle known as, well, Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Together, the quarter sets to trek across ancient Japan and a face variety of adversities, a style of story intentionally reminiscent of myths old and new, be it the folktales inspiring the film’s look or more contemporary media such as the Legend of Zelda games. But what adversities our protagonists face! After all, this is a film by Laika, the animators behind Coraline and ParaNorman, and Kubo and the Two Strings is the finest example of their craft yet - the sword is found embedded in the skull of a gigantic skeleton, crossing a lake has Kubo summon a galleon out of a blizzard of autumn foliage, and an attempt to recover the armour has our protagonist surrounded by a multitude of eyeballs belonging to a massive underwater beast. As the film’s opening tells the audience, “if you must blink, do it now,” fine advice lest you risk missing the animators’ next visual marvel. 

Thankfully, the film as finds at least some time to breathe in between the action set pieces. The script maintains a warm sense of humour, as Monkey and Beetle amusingly bicker on how to best protect their young charge. There’s also a running theme of family, as early on the Moon King is revealed to actually be Kubo’s grandfather, and actually desires that his nephew claims a rightful place in the heavens. But doing so demands he loses his remaining eye, as this is what ties him to humanity and its myriad flaws. Scenes such as this reveals a core of rare honesty to the film - it might be skewed towards younger viewers, but it is willing to tackle themes as serious as suffering, death, the power of storytelling and the value of kindness over violence. Kubo and the Two Strings’ narrative beats might be wholly predictable to anyone who’s seen a movie or three, but its ending does have a genuine as heart-warming as it is surprising. 

Really, if there’s to be a complaint to be had towards Kubo and the Two Strings is that it’s a bit too short - at little more than 100 minutes of length it perhaps requires a bit more time for its characters to breathe. But then again as far as demands go this is somewhat churlish, seeing how much work is evident in each beautifully crafted frame. As such, this remains Laika’s masterpiece, even more so after a summer of superheroes, remakes and reboots. Wholly recommended.