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‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ Review: 2016’s First Animated Masterpiece

Stop-motion story of a young hero, a quest, and a magical stringed instrument is, in a word, magical

“If you must blink,” a voice says over the soundtrack, “do it now.” Consider this sound advice for anyone who’s just entered the stop-motion world of this late-summer fantasy: Close your eyes for a nanosecond, and you might miss the sort of visually mind-blowing shot or part of a sweeping, how-the-hell-did-they-do-that set piece that causes Pavlovian salivating. Take, for example, the opening sequence that occurs right after that line, in which a woman in a boat is buffeted by angry, violent waves. What appears to be a giant tsunami starts to rise in front of her, blocking out a bright, full moon. Suddenly, she lifts her hand and strums down, fast, on a banjo-like shamisen. The power chord parts the sea like Moses. Once she’s washed up on the beach, a one-eyed baby appears out of a knapsack. Less than five minutes have passed. You have not caught your breath yet.

That baby will grow up to be Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson, a.k.a. Game of Thrones‘ Rickon Stark), a sliver of a kid who now uses that string instrument to spin tales of origami-puppet fights for spare change. His mother drifts in and out of lucidity; his father, a legendary samurai, apparently perished trying to unsuccessfully save the boy’s missing orb. But some strange rumblings on the horizon, as well as that mysterious black fog that’s enveloped the local village, suggests something wicked this way comes. Soon, Kubo funds himself on a quest to find his dad’s “unbreakable” sword, magic armor and helmet before his witchy aunts deliver the goods to the evil Moon King. Accompanying him on his trek are a snow monkey doll (Charlize Theron) that’s come to life and a giant, dim-witted warrior beetle (Matthew McConaughey). And then things get really weird.

Folks familiar with the Oregon-based studio Laika — the people responsible for the Freudian waking nightmare Coraline (2009) and the tender I-see-dead-people parable ParaNorman (2011) — know that the company has more or less set the standard for modern stop-motion animation. But with Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika doesn’t so much surpass its own previously set bar so much as demolish it. Watching Kubo turn flat pieces of paper into tiny warriors or an undulating origami swarm of birds, or an underwater swimmer surrounded by floating eyeballs, or a climactic stand-off between our hero and a giant, serpent-like spirit, you forget you’re essentially watching things being painstakingly, microscopically manipulated. And then you remember that this is indeed the product of artists working with small figures on a grand scale, and you find yourself staring at the onscreen sound and fury in awe. The work here is fluid and near-flawless — which is as an apt description for the entire film as any.

Were the animators simply running laps around the old Rankin-Bass notion of the form, Kubo would be a stunning technical achievement unto itself. It’s the way they use it to bring to life the woodcuts-come-to-life aesthetic and the narrative — an amalgamation of Japanese folk tales, Grimm fairy tales, Ray Harryhausen creature features, and every hero’s-journey story — that makes the movie feel completely transcendent. Everything seems to work in harmony, from the look of its characters to the action sequences to the voicework; not even McConaughey’s nonstop wisecracking asides ruin the balance. (Both he and Theron eventually settle into a nice rhythm of interspecies banter that gives the film a verbal bounce.) If the emphasis on the importance of memories, family and hope, and the power of storytelling, doesn’t feel like its approaching the profundity of Pixar’s life lessons, the way the movie turns its familiar family-friendly elements into something fresh and vibrant puts the movie near Pantheon levels of accomplishment. The animation feels like a reinvention. Everything else feels like a spot-on refinement. 

“Magic was never meant to be easy,” a character says to Kubo regarding his unique ability to bring inanimate things to life, and you don’t need a master’s degree in meta to see the double meaning. But while magical is a word that gets thrown around a lot about the movies, few actually deserve to be called that. Kubo and the Two Strings does, and in spades. Filmgoers who’ve suffered through a summer of superheroes, supervillains and sequels/snarky reboots, we now have something that genuinely casts a spell on viewers. We’ve earned this.

Director Travis Knight discusses ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ and the inspiration behind the new animated fantasy. Watch here.

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