Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 101 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 10+. This film includes some action violence, including a couple of very creepy aunts; fights with swords, flying hooks on chains, bows and arrows, and other weapons; fragments of paper that are stylized as blood spurts during a story involving origami; a giant beached whale, a large skeleton, floating eyeballs, and an insect-like dragon; some romantic tension between a couple of characters; and a lot of talk about family honor, death, and grief. Its themes will probably be too advanced and its presentation a bit too scary for younger kids.
Dazzling, complex, and unforgettable, ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ effectively combines layered emotional themes with a stop-motion visual style that is gorgeous and immersive. ‘Kubo’ is one of the year’s standout films, animated or otherwise.
By Roxana Hadadi
“If you must blink, do it now,” protagonist Kubo tells us at the beginning of “Kubo and the Two Strings.” The boy is about to tell us a story, and he doesn’t want us to miss one second—and he’s not wrong. What follows is one of the best films of 2016 so far, a marvel of stop-motion and an emotional whirlwind of a story. “Kubo and the Two Strings” is unforgettable.
The film from Laika, who also produced the excellent “The Boxtrolls,” “ParaNorman,” and “Coraline,” begins on an ocean, in the middle of a storm, in the dead of night. As a woman struggles to make it to shore, she slams a pick down upon a shamisen—a three-stringed Japanese instrument that looks a bit like a guitar—and uses the music that comes from the instrument as a kind of magic. She reaches the stone mountain in the distance. She cradles her crying baby son in her arms. And 11 years later, they’re still there—only now it’s Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson, of "Dracula Untold") who is taking care of her.
During the day, Kubo’s mother doesn’t seem to remember who she is—she goes into a kind of trance, a sort of daze brought on by grief—and barely interacts with him. So in the sunlight, Kubo visits the nearby village, and by playing the shamisen manipulates pieces of paper into origami figures that come to life, flying through the air and battling each other. All the villagers love his tales, but they grow frustrated with his lack of an ending—Kubo’s stories are fantastic, but they often end on cliffhangers.
Perhaps that’s because Kubo’s story doesn’t have a clear conclusion, either. At night, when his mother becomes herself, she tells him stories of her time with his father, Hanzo, who was a legendary warrior—and who Kubo brings alive through his stories. But Hanzo died defending her and Kubo, and they’re still being hunted by Kubo’s mother’s father, the Moon King, and her sisters, the Aunts, who want Kubo’s right eye. They already stole the left eye when he was a baby, and they won’t stop until they have the other.
And, through a series of unfortunate events, they do find Kubo and his mother—attacking the village where they have been hiding all these years. With the last of her magic, Kubo’s mother sends him away, instructing him to find three mythical pieces of armor that would help him defeat the Moon King and retain his humanity, and gives life to a monkey charm that Kubo played with as a child.
When he wakes up, in a far-away land, it’s Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron, of “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”), strict and overprotective, who urges him to be strong in his quest (“I encourage you not to die,” she deadpans). And when they meet up with Beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey, of “Interstellar”), a samurai who has been turned into an insect and had his memories stolen, the three of them become a kind of family unit, the first time Kubo has felt this way.
But the fight with the Moon King is still to come, and whether Kubo is prepared—and how Monkey and Beetle will factor into that show-down—is the major question of “Kubo and the Two Strings.”
What isn’t a question is how unbelievably gorgeous this film is: the opening with Kubo’s mother in a small boat, cutting down the middle of a gigantic cresting wave; Kubo’s first story, as the origami figures duel and dance around him; the introduction of Kubo’s terrifying aunts, who wear porcelain masks, billowing black capes, and are seriously scary; an array of floating lanterns, symbolizing the spirits of those no longer with us, transforming into a flock of gold herons. This is the kind of film you need to see on the largest screen possible to capture every single thing happening, every exquisite detail, of which there are so many.
But the uniqueness of the story fits the beautiful visuals, too. As an exploration of personal responsibility, the power of storytelling, and the necessity of family love, “Kubo and the Two Strings” demonstrates emotional depth that we rarely get in movies for adults, yet alone those for children. Yet “Kubo and the Two Strings” is a whole-family affair, one of the best films of the year, and absolutely worth your 3D ticket price. See it.
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