In ancient Japan, there lives a young boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson). He lives in a cave by the seashore where he cares for his sick mother, and earns a living as a storyteller. He ‘illustrates’ his tales by using magic to make moving figures out of paper, which he controls through playing songs on his shamisen. But his mother has taught him that he can never stay in the village past sundown, for if he does his evil grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), will find him. One night he ignores his mother’s warnings, and his wicked aunts (Rooney Mara) destroy his village and force him to flee into the Far Lands. There he meets two protectors, a Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a cursed samurai (Matthew McConaughey) who join him on his quest to defeat his evil family.
The first thing you’ll notice about Kubo and the Two Strings is its absolutely gorgeous animation. Stop-motion is a tedious and difficult way to make movies, but its benefits are great. Using real, physical models provides a realism impossible with other forms of animation, and allows for a full range of facial expressions which convey emotion in the same manner as a human actor. Laika, already a master in this field, propels the art form to new heights with Kubo; among other things, they created the largest puppet ever used in a stop-motion film for one of the film’s most climatic battle scenes. It’s over 25 feet tall, and can actually be seen being constructed during the credits sequence. But my favorite pieces of animation is Kubo using his magic to animate paper, creating (among other things) samurai, a flock of birds, a fire-breathing chicken, and a full-sized ship.
And speaking of action, Kubo has plenty of it, probably more than all of Laika’s previous films combined. Unlike their previous outings, Kubo is a ‘traditional’ fairytale, complete with magic and ancient weapons and horrendous monsters and a heroic quest. Interestingly though, the film retains Laika’s slightly darker tone compared to Disney and Pixar which they pioneered in Coraline. Although it is still kid-friendly, there is darkness and even death in this movie. This gives the film a gravity that, I think, lighter fare from Disney and Pixar sometimes lack, giving added purpose and meaning to Kubo’s quest.
Overall, Kubo and Two Strings is a fantastic piece of modern animated cinema. The stop-motion visuals are gorgeous and enchanting to see come to life. The voice actors all do an excellent job, and Kubo's music is both wonderful to listen to and refreshingly different than what you would expect in an animated fantasy movie. There’s action and adventure and a little bit of tragedy. If you’re a fan of animation or of fantasy, you can’t go wrong with Kubo and the Two Strings.