“If you must blink, do it now.”
From the onset, Kubo and the Two Strings uses the above quote to command our immediate attention, and by the time it’s through we’re left to peel back our eyelids in awe. A stunning animation, heartbreaking drama, exciting cultural adventure. The film bears each description and wears them well, deftly using clean brushstrokes to blend each component together, never scumbling the striking visuals by submitting to airheaded antics. Kubo and the Two Strings is a rare beast indeed: a movie to inspire children, a story to challenge parents, and a portrait of family to bring both sides together in harmony. I haven’t seen a better animated film in 2016 and doubt anything yet to come can usurp this flower in full bloom.
Living on the outskirts of an ancient Japanese village, Kubo (Art Parkinson) is to never stay out in the dark. Doing so would allow his grandfather The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and aunts (Rooney Mara) to finally find him. They’re of the god realm and want Kubo’s remaining eye to dispel his powers. By day he’s a storyteller, plucking his three-stringed shamisen and telling tall tales passed on from his mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron). Kubo’s father was a samurai – missing since his birth – and the stories are a means of catharsis and a form of amusement for the locals. Later on, Kubo learns of a ceremony where villagers are able to speak to their loved ones who have passed from this world. He fails to speak with his father, the night rolls in, and with it comes the evil kin. The adventure begins.
Following the classic hero’s journey story device, Kubo sets out on a quest to gather a sword, armor, and a helmet so he can defeat the Moon King. Beside him are Monkey (Charlize Theron again) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), both intent on securing the safety of young Kubo. As each challenge becomes larger and more difficult, they choose to band together, displaying a shining example for children that the phrase “strength in numbers” can be trusted. That’s what makes Kubo and the Two Strings so laudable, as well as so sure-footed. It doesn’t pander, or patronize, or look down at younger audiences like they’re empty vessels. If anything, the film’s intent seems to fall under the subtle disguise of unmasking a child’s unique sense of innocence, belief, and humanity. The gift just keeps on giving the further and deeper the movie goes.
First time director Travis Knight has made an immensely detailed and profound film, albeit with a few tiny hiccups. Occasionally the story seems to skip a beat or allows important info to take place off-screen. It’s a small but present issue. Other than that though, Knight’s picture is a technical marvel full of thoughtful and playful voice performances. Don’t forget the production design either, inspired by Japanese Washi and paying homage to Ukiyo-e art, not to mention the odes to auteur Kurosawa. But the real reason to see this devastating and uplifting movie is in the bold statement it makes. I personally don’t ascribe to believing in life after death, nor do I condemn the right to such belief. Whatever works for you. In the end – and in quite an emphatic fashion – Kubo and the Two Strings indoctrinates us with an indisputable truth. Once our time is up, we all continue to live on in this world. We leave an everlasting imprint on every person we come in contact with. Then they pass us into others, and those others pass us into others, and from there the me becomes a collective we. What we bequeath can be good or bad. The film reminds us of the ever-expanding and spectacular human web we’re all a part of, and spins its story with an absolutely invigorating sense of goodness. Kubo and the Two Strings is object permanence of the soul.
“The end of one story is merely the beginning of another.”
Rating: 5 out of 5