This has been quite the year for enchanting animated films. In 2016, there was April and the Extraordinary World, Moana, Miss Hokusai, and the American release of the phenomenal 1991 Japanese drama Only Yesterday. One can add Kubo and the Two Strings to that list.
An utterly captivating film by the makers of Coraline, Kubo takes place in Medieval Japan, and though it has the feel of an ancient Japanese legend, it is entirely original. Kubo is about stories, storytelling, death, memory, bravery, sacrifice, and growing up. The fact that it manages to weave these themes so effortlessly into an entertaining fable is a testament to screenwriters Chris Butler and Marc Haimes and director Travis Knight.
Its opening narration has a delightfully timeless feel, “If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see and hear, no matter how unusual it may seem. And please be warned, if you fidget, if you look away, if you forget any part of what I tell you, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.”
This is stated in a voice-over as we first watch a young woman and an infant sailing upon massive waves on the tiniest of boats. It is also how Kubo, the infant and now a young boy years later, begins to weave a tale before a crowd in a small provincial town for money. He plays a mean shamisen (the two stringed instrument of the title) and manages to magically bring pieces of colored paper to life through origami to sing about an adventure: a hero on a quest for a helmet, armor, and a sword, all possessing magic.
Afterwards, Kubo returns before sundown to the cave where he and his mother resides. She has always warned him never stay out after the sun comes down. Needless to say Kubo does so one day, and he finds out the reason for his mother’s admonition: two floating beauties, who seek him out to snatch him. He escapes from them with the help of a snow monkey and a cursed samurai beetle (I kid you not), and Kubo finds himself on the quest for the very items he used to sing about.
What follows is a generous, fantastical coming-of-age journey that learns hard on comedy and horror. There is also a fair amount of humor, generally supplied by the relationship between the deadly serious snow monkey and the completely clueless samurai. There are plenty of twists and turns, and a genuinely moving and profound finale.
The voice actors are all first-rate. Charlize Theron gives the no-nonsense monkey gravitas with just a hint of I-do-know-better sarcasm. Matthew McConaughey resurrects his laid-back stoner character and retools it for someone who knew who he was at some point and now is baffled at who he has become, which, of course, suits a laid back stoner perfectly. Rooney Mara voices the evil aunts with a snaky, sneaky coldness, and veteran favorites Brenda Vaccaro and George Takei also join in the fun with some beautiful, boisterous work. Art Parkinson takes on the title role, the enthusiastic go-getter one usually hears in a young lead of an animated film, but Parkinson gives it depth once Kubo deals concretely with sorrow and loss.
This is a children’s film, but one for brave eight or nine year olds. Director Knight doesn’t shirk when he essays the dangers that Kubo faces. This honesty is what gives the film its strength and power.