Nearly every kids movie purports to be about magic. Either the kind that appears in incantations and cauldrons, or the implied kind in which every whimsical story is said to entrance the young and cast a spell of loving tranquility upon them (see Disney, Walt); but very few of them take the subject as seriously as the singularly peculiar East/West hybrid Kubo and the Two Strings.
The film was made by American stop-motion company Laika Entertainment, with distribution in the United States from Focus Features, but the story itself -- based on an original concept by screenwriter Marc Haimes and Shannon Tindle -- is steeped in the Japanese tradition of shadow-magic, made popular by animated film auteur Hayao Miyazaki. The effect is oddly affecting, almost unnervingly so. In an age of retreads, sequels and focus-grouped kids movies that feel poured out of the same mold over and over, this film, about a little boy's quest both for his late father and his own legacy, is very much its own entity.
Kubo and the Two Strings
89 Cast: (voices of) Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey
Director: Travis Knight
Rating: PG, for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril
Running time: 101 minutes
The little boy is the titular Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a young village storyteller with a compelling manner ("If you must blink," he tells us somberly in the film's opening voice-over, "do it now" -- the same intro he uses before each of his public presentations) and a leaf of magic origami paper whose fantastic creatures, samurais, and forests leap in the air and cavort to his command.
Kubo, who wears an eye patch for reasons we come to eventually discover, and his mother (Charlize Theron), a beautiful but sad recluse who ran away with her baby son across a dangerous sea in order to hide him on this small island off the coast of the mainland, live in a simple cave facing the ocean. When he's not entrancing the village with his stories, or hanging out with Kameyo (Brenda Vaccaro), a kind, elderly woman who has befriended him, Kubo is taking care of his mother, who waves in and out of lucidity, sometimes telling him fantastical stories about his father, a great samurai warrior, but often getting lost in thought and never getting to the endings.
One early evening, Kubo stays out past sunset, breaking one of the many incontrovertible laws his mother has set forth for him, and is attacked by a pair of dark-caped, masked spirits (both voiced by Rooney Mara), floating over the sand, who claim to be his aunts. As he's about to be taken in by their smoke-tendril magic, his mother suddenly appears with the boy's magic shamisen (a three-stringed lute), and scatters everything into darkness.
Awakened by a hovering monkey in a raging blizzard, Kubo is bewildered but is led by the monkey -- once a wooden talisman given to him by his mother -- to a place of safety. Eventually the two figure out that Kubo's only hope is to avoid his aunts, and his immortal grandfather, the fearsome Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), and track down his father's magic armor and sword, scattered in secret places throughout the land. With the help of Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a former great samurai who served under Kubo's father, but cursed with insectlike appendages, the crew embark on the quest together, even as Kubo's malicious extended family members try to thwart them at every turn.
It is incredibly easy to sleepwalk through the creation of such fare, as animation studios from DreamWorks to Disney have shown time and again, creating easy-to-recognize character cutouts and standard dramatic arcs -- along with a grating amount of topical humor -- but first-time director Travis Knight, the head of Laika, believes in his material enough to give it, and his audience, proper respect.
The banter, especially between Monkey and Beetle, is genuinely funny ("One question, if I'm Beetle and you're Monkey, why isn't he 'Boy'?), but more impressively, the emotional journey the three embark upon is honest and sincerely moving. Kubo is a sweet kid, but isn't above getting piqued when he doesn't get his way, and Monkey, who has an air of sadness to her even as she's cracking jokes, becomes something of an audience touchstone, even as she's first played mostly for laughs.
Emotional depth aside, the film is also gorgeous, with glowing evening light filtering off of the characters' faces, and beautiful renderings of post-feudal Japan in its natural glory. There is something, too, about claymation -- as evidenced in Charlie Kaufman's brilliant Anomalisa from last year -- that particularly reverberates. The exact details of facial expressions and gestures, often depicting complicated emotional responses, resonate in clay in a way that hearkens to its own kind of magic. In the characters' faces, we recognize things in ourselves, and our knowledge of their highly complicated, manufactured nature makes the alchemy even more astonishing.
During the film's post-credits sequence there's a section shot in time lapse where we revisit one of the more significant action sequences, wherein our intrepid trio have to do battle with a giant skeleton in whose head is embedded the swords of countless other victims, but as the camera pulls back to show the sets, and lights, and green screens, with blurry crew members fiddling endlessly with each fastidious movement, you get a sense of just how technically impressive the feat of bringing to life this world actually is.
It's a proper and fitting conclusion to a film dedicated to the harmonious magic already present in our lives, the connectedness of families, ancient ancestors and the way our sense of reality is warped by our all-too-human and primitive understanding of the enchanted world around us.
MovieStyle on 08/19/2016
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