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Friday, 30 June 2017

Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings.

Here's a film I had my eye on back when it hit cinemas in August of last year, but almost completely forgot about until this last week, despite the fact that it was released on home media way, way back last November. The fourth film made by Laika, who are easily best known for their very first feature film outing, Coraline, Kubo and the Two Strings is the directorial debut of Travis Knight, who previously worked as an animator on Coraline, ParaNorman, and Moongirl.

A stop-motion animation piece with an art style inspired by ukiyo-e, ink wash painting, and origami (which also factors into the film heavily as a plot element), Kubo and the Two Strings was pitched as an ambitious, artistically driven samurai epic, and is without a doubt the studio's biggest and most elaborate undertaking yet.

But is it a success?

(Yes, it is -- commercially it did modestly well, managing to just about overtake its significant budget; and it was a critical hit, and it's pretty easy to see why. You can probably skip the rest of the review now, if you want to.)

Set in a world modeled off Japanese mythology and folklore, the film follows Kubo, a one-eyed storyteller and musician caring for his disabled mother, who warns him never to leave the cave where they live at night, lest his grandfather, the Moon King, should see him. When Kubo accidentally stays out late during a festival, his fearsome and sinister aunts arrive, planning on gouging out his remaining eye. As his mother fends them off, Kubo is spirited away, and wakes up with a Monkey (formerly a wooden charm, now animated by his mother) looking after him. With the help of a part-beetle samurai, Beetle; along with an origami figure of his father, Kubo and Monkey set out to reunite three pieces of armour that Kubo's father, Hanzo, was searching for.

I kinda want to know the story behind that buried statue.

We'll start with the big selling point of the film: It's beautiful. Laika's films have all been artistically excellent, but their artistic directions tend to run a pretty wide gamut -- Coraline is very Tim Burton esque, while ParaNorman, for example, tends towards a slightly over-distorted style that reminds me more of Psychonauts than anything else -- and in this case, that artistic direction was to make everything look gorgeous, impressive, and striking. Every scene in this film is visually stunning, with the landscapes, monsters, and characters never failing to produce an emotional impact and a sense of awe, whether it be the warm and cheerful village and its homely people; Kubo's sinister aunts gliding through a dark forest; or a massive skeleton monster rampaging through a cave.

Let's talk about that skeleton monster for a moment, because it makes for a perfect example of the effort and enthusiasm put into the animation for this piece: The scene it appears in is fairly short, albeit very atmospheric, but the puppet itself is nearly seventeen feet tall, verging on three times the height of the people building it and absolutely dwarfing the Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle puppets. It's a contender for the biggest puppet ever used in a stop-motion film, and that was just for a single scene -- a less passionate studio would have downscaled, and made the Gashadokuro large but not titanic in that fashion, but Laika apparently saw that challenge and set about solving it in bombastic fashion.

Karasu, one of Kubo's aunts.

The story is in many ways a pretty typical children's story film: A kid and his ragtag companions (who fill parental roles for him, which is hardly unusual) are searching a magical land for some important items. Where it differs is in its themes and how it sees those themes through to completion: The theme of Kubo and the Two Strings is, largely, acceptance of grief and death, and while it's definitely not the first children's film to try to tackle that subject, it nevertheless tackles it with a certain amount of aplomb and a certain amount of brutality, viciously killing off several of its core cast members towards the end and forcing us, the audience, to come to terms with it along with Kubo.

That theme is also seen in the villainous motivation of the Moon King, who wants to take Kubo to heaven and make him immortal, and who fears grief and death (and is eventually forced to deal with it as well, at least in implication) -- but in many ways, the Moon King is the weakest part of the film. For most of the story, the Sisters serve as the main antagonists, with the Moon King a distant, sinister figure, and when he actually does show up, he lacks the terrifying, alien nature of the sisters, or really anything to make him stand out as a villain.

It's the films biggest flaw, and it's a flaw that nearly kills the third act, as the story culminates in a confrontation with a villain who isn't impressive, or even really pitiful, or even really anything. Ralph Fiennes gets top billing in this film, but it really doesn't feel like he's bringing his A-game to it.

Monkey and Kubo.

The rest of the cast, however, are superb. Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey knock it out of the park as Monkey and Beetle, Rooney Mara voices the Sisters with a perfect mix of fury and creepiness, and Art Parkinson -- perhaps best known as playing Rickon Stark in Game of Thrones -- puts in one of the best performances from a young actor I've seen all year.

Add to that an excellent soundtrack, including a Regina Spektor cover of 'As My Guitar Gently Weeps,' and you have a really solidly made film.

I enjoyed this film a lot, and I heartily recommend it to everyone. It clocks in at about an hour and a half, so it's a fairly short film on balance, but it could have easily been twice that length and been just as enjoyable.

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