The ties that bind. That expression came to mind after I watched this, kind of appropriate since we’re talking about strings (among other things). We’ve all heard, read or used it before. It’s been the title of everything from novels to songs to episodes of TV shows, to even an animated film based on the Street Fighter video game.
And now, in this enchanting, stunningly (stop-motion) animated fantasy, such “ties that bind” are the foundation of this story, the motivation for so many of its characters … and they also give a special meaning to the title when you realise just what these “two strings” are.
Whether it’s the ties to a place, person or a memory, these emotional connections give wings to the film. And anyone who has ever been cared for by someone, or cared for anyone themselves, will find a lot here that connects with them on a very basic level.
Kubo And The Two Strings is the fourth film from animation studio Laika, which gave us Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls – all three scored Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature and it would be a horrible oversight on the Academy’s part to overlook this one next year.
Kubo marks the directing debut of Laika CEO Travis Knight, who served as an animator with the studio’s predecessor, Will Vinton Studios, when his daddy (and Nike co-founder Phil Knight) bought it in the late 1990s.
The younger Knight acquits himself well, assuredly weaving a tale that is so earnest in its intent to cast a spell on us, that we can easily overlook the occasional lapse (like too much bickering on the part of two of its characters, and the “whitevoicing” of having all the principal roles of a movie set in a fantastical Japan voiced by Westerners – though, granted, they do fine jobs).
Kubo (Art Parkinson, Game Of Thrones’ Rickon Stark) is a young boy who is skilled at origami, the shamisen (a three-stringed musical instrument) … and magic.
His playing conjures up amazing folded-paper beings that come to life and, every day, enthrall the villagers at an unnamed but really friendly little place. By night, he returns to a cave by the seaside cliffs where he cares for his slowly deteriorating mother, who was injured while saving him years ago and has warned him never to stay out after dark.
His wicked grandfather, you see, stole Kubo’s eye at birth, killed his father – the brave samurai Hanzo – and now relentlessly seeks the boy with the help of his creepy porcelain-faced daughters.
Before you can say “told you so”, Kubo does indeed get caught outside after dark one day, nasty things come for him, and his relatively calm (if somewhat melancholy) existence is changed forever.
Long story short, Kubo ends up on a quest to find the mythical armour and weapon his mother told him about so that he can confront his grandfather and bring closure to his father’s quest. And he has a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and a giant samurai stag beetle (Matthew McConaughey) for company.
Say what, again? Don’t ask and don’t think too much on it – just let yourself get caught up and whisked off on this magical mystery tour.
The Beatles reference is deliberate, since the connection is strong. The trailer famously used an instrumental version of the George Harrison-written While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and the film itself closes with a cover version of it sung by Regina Spektor.
Far more than just a song that feels right, this musical choice is especially astute given Harrison’s own musings on Eastern philosophy and interconnectedness when he wrote it – these are indeed fundamental components of the film as well. The filmmakers really did their homework, and it’s a poetic way to end such an affecting film.
But it’s not just a movie that plays on the emotions. Kubo is a stunning work, especially when you consider that Laika’s stock-in-trade is stop-motion animation – that most laborious but somehow more satisfying of processes.
The animators conjure up some pretty impressive sights, from Kubo’s “living origami” to the creepy twins, from the curiously charming Monkey (her fur looks like it was “borrowed” from the Laika office mop) to the self-confident gait of Beetle (you’ll believe a bug can swagger). Throw in other stunners like a huge skeletal guardian and an undersea forest of eyes, and their achievement here is highly commendable.
After a wearisome summer blockbuster season that consisted mostly of misfires, it’s heartening to find something as unique, thrilling, funny and heartwarming as this. Kubo And The Two Strings steadfastly holds on to a positive outlook even when its characters are confronted by hatred and evil, and that alone makes it worthy of being bound to our hearts.
Kubo And The Two Strings
Director: Travis Knight
Voice cast: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, Brenda Vaccaro, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa