Every time the lights dim in a movie theater, I hope to have a great experience. I hope that whatever it is I’m about to see somehow, in some way, raises the bar of what a film can be. Of course, movies that do that are too few and too far between. They are not the norm. But, every once in a while it happens; every once in a while something is amazing and wonderful.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is just such a movie. It is a marvel and an utter must see film. First time director Travis Knight helms this LAIKA film and imbues the magical tale of a boy on a quest to avenge his father’s death with more heart and wonder than most films can ever dream to contain.
At the center of it all is Kubo. Kubo (Art Parkinson) lives with his mother in a cave outside a village in Japan. He regularly ventures down to the village tell stories to the locals, earning money in the process. The villagers don’t just like Kubo’s stories of the great samurai Hanzo because they are well told (even if they don’t feature endings), it’s that they are literally magical as well. As Kubo tells the villagers his tale and strums his guitar, pieces of origami he carries around with him come to life, forming themselves into the characters in Kubo’s story, or the objects that they are out to find. And, more than that, these pieces of origami do battle with one another before the villagers.
These stories, or pieces of them, all originate with the ones Kubo’s mother tells him. She tells Kubo tales of his father and maternal grandfather, and how Kubo’s father died protecting the Kubo from Kubo’s grandfather, an evil man who stole one of Kubo’s eyes. She also warns Kubo that his grandfather is still out there and still wants Kubo’s other eye. Being a kid, Kubo doesn’t head some of his mother’s warnings, causes more than a little trouble in the village, and is sent off on a quest of his own to make things right.
A magical tale, “Kubo and the Two Strings” is well served by equally magical visuals. LAIKA, who has produced some impressive work before has truly outdone itself this time. The characters may not look lifelike (that certainly isn’t the intent), but they convey clear emotions, pulling the viewer in. The settings are gorgeous, varied, and vibrant.
To put it as simply as possible, the entire movie sings. The story that it tells is nothing short of outstanding. It is gorgeous to look at. It is melodic to listen to. It is brilliantly realized with bits of humor, great vocal performances (Matthew McConaughey’s Beetle and Charlize Theron’s Monkey are particularly excellent), and more than a little razzle-dazzle. In some of its best moments, the visuals echo Kubo’s origami, bringing to life for Kubo that which Kubo once brought to life for the villagers.
As I was watching it, I kept waiting for “Kubo and the Two Strings” to falter. I kept waiting for it to make a mistake. It starts out so well, that I was utterly sure that it couldn’t possibly keep it going, that the opening was simply a way to get the audience into the story, and after that it would settle down to something vaguely more mundane and less wondrous.
I was wrong. That never occurs. The movie just keeps pressing forward, finding new ways to keep the magic going. It might momentarily scare younger members of the audience, some of the battles it depicts are nothing to laugh at, but for anyone old enough, it should not be missed.
Unlike the boy at its center, I lack enough words in my arsenal to appropriately express my fondness for the film.
photo credit: Focus Features