Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
2016 has been a spectacular year for animated movies. Not really for anything else, but animation is at least on a roll. The year started off with Kung Fu Panda 3 and Zootopia, and has recently had strong entries like Finding Dory and The Secret Life of Pets. Later this year will be Moana, Sing, and Storks, which all look solid to me.
Now, along comes Kubo and the Two Strings, which I went into cold. I usually do research beforehand on all the movies I see (i.e, watch trailers, research the studio and talent names, etc.). With Kubo, all I knew was that it was from Laika entertainment, and starred Matthew McConaughey and Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa!).
I was a little nervous because so far I haven’t loved any of Laika’s stuff. Laika is the only studio right now doing stop-motion films. They are known for being dark, creepy, and very artistic. Laika is the Martin Scorsese of animated movies. Everyone respects them, they always get nominated, but Pixar always wins anyway.
So, in a year of great animated movies, will Kubo and the Two Strings ruin the streak of coming in #2? Or will it represent proudly and possibly win Best Animated Oscar?
Kubo and the Two Strings begins with Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson), a young boy who had his left eye taken from him by the Moon King, his grandfather, in an act of revenge against Kubo’s parents. His father was lost, and now Kubo spends his days taking care of his sickly mother. She warns him to never go out after dark, or the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) will be able to see him and take his other eye.
One day Kubo sees the people of his village celebrating their ancestors and praying to them. He goes with the group to a river and makes his own monument for his father, and tries praying to it. He doesn’t get a response, and starts to go home angry, when he suddenly realizes it is after dark. The Sisters (Rooney Mara), henchmen of the Moon King, attack Kubo. His mother comes to save him, giving up her life, and telling Kubo to go find a suit of armor that will protect him. He is joined on his quest by Monkey (Charlize Theron), whom his mother sends to guide him, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), who used to serve Kubo’s father.
Right off the bat, the film warns you it is going to be dark, and it is not going to take its themes of death and loss lightly. In just this short intro, two people have died, and a child has had his eye removed. This is not a little-kids film, the deaths portrayed being more Grimm Brothers than Disney. There was some crying in my theater. I went with my family and two elementary school kids, and both talked about how scary the film was afterwards. I myself was a little freaked out by the villains in this film. Laika doesn’t mess around. That is what makes it work so well.
Speaking of Disney, there are some things I really appreciate about this film that I wish Disney (representing all mainstream animation) would take notes on. To be clear, I enjoy Disney movies, they’re some of my favorites. But, I also have a lot of beef with them as a studio and the formulas I see emerging in their newest movies (impress me, Moana). Here is a film that does anti-Disney so well, and it works wonders.
What Kubo and The Two Strings does that no other animated movie so far this year has done:
- Some of the most breathtaking, painstakingly detailed animation that I have ever seen. I saw this film in 2D, yet it felt 3D with its textures, colors, and worldbuilding.
- The quiet moments. Films this year have had a few quiet moments, scenes that focused on worldbuilding, character development, and mythology more than action or comedy, but not many. Kubo takes every opportunity to sit the characters down and have them talk, banter, and share stories.
- A plot with stakes. A plot that lets people die, doesn’t give us boring fake-outs, and one that commits to its premise.
- Save for Finding Dory, it is one of the most family-affirming films of the year, and shows how we all need parents and/or mentors in our lives.
- Despite some of its Eastern-religious themes, the film explores how we relate to the dead, and the people (God) put in our lives to guide us.
- Every. Single. Action. Sequence is memorable. They are all different, they all use their locations creatively, reveal character, and advance the plot.
- A beautiful use of score.
- It made me feel the feels without manipulating my emotions.
Besides the breathtaking animation (describing it here doesn’t do it justice), the voice acting is a highlight. Charlize Theron brings a sweet, yet fierce, wit that really works in the film. I loved every second her character was on screen, and the emotion portrayed with her voice. Matthew McConaughey gives it his all, and while at first I was apprehensive of his character, I grew to like him more and more. However, his very-American country twang sounds out of place sometimes more than others, but I appreciated the energy and enthusiasm in the performance. Art Parkinson, Rooney Mara, and Ralph Fiennes all do admirable work too as their respective characters. Maybe one day we’ll get Japanese voice actors to play Japanese characters, but since this is animation and the cast does a fine job, I’ll let it slide.
I can’t recommend Kubo and The Two Strings enough. Suicide Squad got you down? Remakes making you bored? Want to see something different? This film will do the trick.