Directed by Travis Knight
Starring: Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Art Parkinson, Rooney Mara
Sitting in an empty theatre to see a children’s film at 13:30 on a sunny Friday afternoon, should not be at the top of anyone’s to do list and yet me and some friends were there to see a new animated film. As I watched the trailers, the bit that everyone loves according, I saw one colourful CGI animation after another. I began to think that there are other ways to animate films and wonder why computer animation had become the default method. It may be more versatile, allowing filmmakers to create anything that they want; magical worlds inside people’s heads, the secret life of talking animals, singing animals. That is not to detract from the quality of computer-animated films but I sometimes wish there was more variety. Thankfully despite the domination of CGI there are still studios that produce high quality animation using different techniques. Kubo and the Two Strings is the latest project by Stop-Motion studio Laika, written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, directed by Travis Knight, it provides the best example of a unique and vital animated film not made solely with a computer.
Set in ancient Japan the titular Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a young street performer, able to magically manipulate paper in order to tell stories with origami figures to the nearby villagers. He performs to take care of his sick mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron) who warns Kubo never to go out without a wooden Monkey Charm, his father’s robe and never ever stay out past moon rise. It turns out that Kubo is being sought by his grandfather the evil Moo King (Ralph Fiennes) and his two Aunts (both played by Rooney Mara) who wish to blind Kubo by removing his eyes. During an attempt at a festival to contact his dead father, Hanzo, Kubo accidently does stay out past dark, allowing his wicked family to find him. His mother uses the last of her magic to send Kubo away to search for the legendary armour of his father, which is the only thing that will protect him from his grandfather. On his quest he is joined by a small red animated origami Monkey (Charlize Theron again), the charm that Kubo’s mother made him carry everywhere, and Beetle (Mathew McConaughey) a cursed samurai that served under Kubo’s father.
Judging an animated film is and must be different from that of a live action film. The most obvious difference and difficulty is who brings the characters to life, the voice actor or the animator? Personally I am of the opinion that while it is the animator that does most of the work in that regard, bringing little subtleties of performance and emotion, both are equally important as they should enhance each other. In this regard the performances are spectacular. Each character has weight, both literally and figuratively. Indeed the sheer amount of emotion that the animators are able to extract from a tiny voiceless origami samurai speaks volumes to the talent of the crew moving the world of Kubo. Each character deals with real emotions and you have an immediate connection to each one of the leads, even if Beetle can be a little overbearing with his comedy routines. I found myself on multiple occasions tearing up at Kubo’s plight. Not only that, but the character interactions are phenomenal. The three central characters have an amazing rapport that develops into the most unorthodox familial relationships, though saying anymore would spoil the film’s plot as well as the film as an experience.
I would be rueful if I neglected to talk about the visuals, which like the plot are epic. Each setting no matter how brief its appearance is beautiful and breath taking. Not only that but the world feels lived in and ancient; the snowy wastes are littered with great statues that have shattered and lie buried beneath the snow, there are caves filled with bones and ancient treasures and the village is full of little details that all build a living lived in world for us to explore and experience with Kubo on his quests. The design of the creatures and monsters, especially the sea of eyes and the sisters, are unnerving and unsettling providing the darker moments and scares. All in all the film is a feast for the eyes. This is indeed the largest, most ambitious and most epic stop motion animated film I have ever seen.
Similarly Kubo is a treat for the ears, with music by Dario Marianelli adding that extra element that only music can. The score is littered with traditional Japanese instruments, specifically the shamisen that Kubo plays in order to create his magic. A shout out must go to the end credits that has a fantastic cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by Regina Spector, which plays over a great animated summation of the story, and provides a reason to stay way past the end of the story.
Unfortunately the job of a film critic is to criticize and while I would prefer to ignore this I must address a problem that I found with the film. The only small negative that I can see is there are slight pacing issues. At an average run time for an animated film of 102 minutes the film wizzes by. It hurtles through the glorious vistas and epic set pieces to an ending that leaves me feeling a little unsatisfied (though I may need to watch it again, a task that I do not find odious at all). Despite the mechanical weakness the story is epic and full of jokes and innovation enough to provide a distraction from its pacing.
Reviewing a children’s film as an adult for an audience that presumably is not made up of children is also difficult. One must bear both audiences in mind and thus you have to perform a strange juggling act, exercising your intelligence but also allowing certain flaws to go by – as a 24 year old Postgraduate student I am most certainly not the core demographic. With that said, this film is an absolute joy. It balances comedy, drama, adventure, horror and sentimentality so well that every member of the family at any age will enjoy it. Pacing issues aside this is an important film for so many reasons, it speaks of family, both in the traditional and non-traditional sense. It confronts some really important issues of child carers, grief, and growing up. It is a film that by the end will have you bawling your eyes out and scrambling out of the screen to call your own parents; all of this wrapped in an epic fantasy tale with interesting and unique characters.
Reviewed by Benjamin Pinsent