Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.
If you read this blog and live in the U.S., you almost certainly have a NetFlix streaming account. If that is the case, you should know now that Kubo and the Two Strings is now streaming and has been for a few days. Stop what you’re doing. Stop reading this. Go watch Kubo and the Two Strings. Do it now. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. This review will still be here when you’re done.
Back? Good. I’ve now seen two of the movies nominated for Best Animated Feature for last year, and I can tell you right now that Oscar did not get this pick right. I know this because I have seen the winner (Zootopia) and I have seen Kubo and the Two Strings, and the former barely deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as the latter, unless that sentence is, “Zootopia should never have won over Kubo and the Two Strings.” Seriously, who does Laika have to have sex with to win an Oscar? All four of their features have been nominated, three of them were deserving, and two either should have won or had a legitimate shot at winning, and yet the company is 0-4.
The film starts with Kubo (Art Parkinson, better known as the Rickon Stark on Game of Thrones) and his mother (Charlize Theron) fleeing from somewhere in a boat during a massive storm. His mother uses magic tied to her three-stringed shamisen to part waves, but their ship is wrecked nonetheless. The pair wash up somewhere and begin a life, living in a cave outside of a village. Kubo, we soon see, is missing his left eye. His mother warns him to never be out under the night sky or he will be discovered by his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and his other two daughters (both voiced by Rooney Mara). He also learns that his father Hanzo was killed protecting her and Kubo.
Kubo spends his days in the local town telling stories of the powerful Hanzo, who was questing for three magical samurai items—a sword, a breastplate, and a helm. Kubo uses the magic of the shamisen to animate little origami figures to enact the battles. However, since he cannot be out in the dark, he never finishes his story, much to the townspeople’s sadness. This is especially frustrating to his biggest fan (voiced by Brenda Vaccaro) and the rest of the villagers (one of whom is voiced by George Takei).
To move the plot along, of course Kubo is going to be caught out at night. The village holds a yearly festival in which people can communicate with the dead through paper lanterns. Wanting desperately to speak to his father, Kubo stays late, but his father doesn’t show up. However, this keeps him out late, and he is attacked by his two aunts. According to his mother, the aunts want to remove his other eye—the Moon King took one, and with the second one removed, Kubo will be able to rise into the night sky and take his place with the rest of his family. His aunts attack and his mother defends him, using the rest of the magic she possesses to send him far away.
When Kubo wakes up, he discovers that the little monkey charm he kept has come to life (and since the monkey is also voiced by Charlize Theron, it’s not hard to figure out who she is). When his little Hanzo origami figure animates on his own, they determine that Kubo needs to track down the three items his father quested for. Along the way, they meet Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a samurai warrior who has been cursed. He has lost his memory but believes that he was Hanzo’s friend. He’s also more or less been crossed with a stag beetle. He’s half-man, half-insect, including an extra set of arms.
The trio, aided by the little origami Hanzo, trek across Japan to locate the missing items and dealing with attacks from Kubo’s mother’s sisters along the way. There are moments of humor, many coming from Beetle, and also moments of real danger when lives are truly on the line. This is one of Laika’s strongest suits as a film company. They don’t hold back from putting their characters in real danger that can really affect the story. Kubo and his companions are rarely safe, and genuine threats are a part of the story.
So let’s talk about what they do right: almost everything. The art and animation are beautiful, and the use of origami figures throughout adds an additional and wonderful fantasy element to a film that is already heavily invested in fantasy. The characters are interesting and compelling. Even Beetle, who is a comic relief character in many ways, isn’t a worthless character and has many strengths and good qualities, and more than once saves the day.
Kubo and the Two Strings is also a film I will point to when discussing the concept of world building and the willing suspension of disbelief. Nothing pulls me out of a story faster than a situation that doesn’t work consistently with the world with which we are presented. This film doesn’t suffer that problem. We have talking snow monkeys, giant insect men, magical musical instruments and animated origami figures, but the movie’s world is consistent from start to finish. It all works within the context of the film world and doesn’t break. That’s a wonderful thing, given just how strange and magical the world we’re given is.
What did they do wrong? Appeal to people. Kubo and the Two String may be Laika’s best movie. At the very least, it’s as appealing and as good as ParaNorman, yet it grossed the least amount of any of their films. This is an absolute shame. This is a joy to watch, a film that will appeal as much to adults as it does to kids.
Seriously, if you haven’t seen this and have read this anyway, go see it. If you can, pay for it and send more money to Laika, because they should be rewarded with presenting a movie this good and this well-written and produced.
Why to watch Kubo and the Two Strings: It’s so damn good.
Why not to watch: You are a sad person who hates everything joyful.