Regular readers of Almanac Weekly movie reviews will know that I characteristically stalk my prey in wide, slow spirals of sometimes-vaguely-pertinent sociopolitical/cultural referents before moving in for the kill. This time I’m going to cut to the chase immediately, to give you time to get to the cinema before the next showing of Kubo and the Two Strings: This is not only your humble critic’s favorite animated film of the year; it’s my favorite film of the year so far, period. Go. Now. We can talk about it later.
Have you ever awakened from a dream, its details quickly slipping away, but feeling tingly all over, knowing that you somehow managed in your sleep to cross the borders of the realm of Faërie? That visceral sense of making contact with the magical world can sometimes be evoked on film as well. It’s a rare occurrence indeed, and you know that the movie you’re seeing is an especially good one when it happens – when the tears that come to your eyes are due not to a sentimental storyline, but to the skillful evocation of wonder that can be the epitome of the narrative art of the screen.
Directed by Travis Knight, Kubo and the Two Strings is the latest offering from Laika, the animation studio that previously gave us Coraline, Paranorman and The Boxtrolls – gems, every one. Blending stop-motion characters with CGI backgrounds of extraordinary detail and ethereal beauty, Kubo is replete with magical moments. The film’s visual aesthetic and its sometimes stately, sometimes sprightly sense of movement derive from origami and Noh drama, the traditional Japanese arts of paper-folding and ritual drama. Story, acting and music aside, it’s such a stunner to the eye that you’ll be wanting your own copy just to gape at it frame-by-frame for the art. (See it on the big screen the first time, though – and maybe the second as well.)
Then there’s the story, a coming-of-age quest that is dark and challenging, full of sorrow and loss, leavened by flashes of cheeky humor. I don’t know if Marc Haimes and Chris Butler’s screenplay by is based on actual Japanese folklore, but Kubo’s core message has a decidedly Buddhist feel to it: The uplift of the ending comes from the power of forgiveness, not the satisfaction of revenge. It is through our ability to tell stories – to reframe our beliefs and perceptions through words – that we humans are able to forgive both ourselves and those who have done us harm. Thus do we break out of the violent cycles of history and evolve spiritually as a species – like the way in which the Japanese people reinvented themselves from a militaristic culture to a peace-loving one in the aftermath of nuclear destruction and the humiliating terms of unconditional surrender.
It’s an extraordinary meta-message that celebrates narrative art in all its forms, from village storytellers like young Kubo to modern wizards of electronic media. We can remake our imperfect world, the movie seems to say, simply by describing it differently. But you don’t need to write or make films for your living to feel heartened in your purpose by seeing it. You can simply enjoy the adventures of a plucky young boy who can make origami paper take living form by playing his enchanted shamisen, who tries valiantly to communicate with a mother who has been irrevocably traumatized by the death of her warrior husband. Kubo, whose left eye was stolen in his infancy by his grandfather, the Moon King, in an effort to blind him to a human capacity for compassion, must confront supernatural foes of terrifying power who are his own kin. Love and loyalty, courage and sacrifice are found in unexpected places in his world, when the resources on which people usually depend prove illusory.
The film is populated with engaging characters, brought to vivid, heartfelt life by an amazing cast of voice actors. Art Parkinson, whose character Rickon Stark recently got killed off in HBO’s Game of Thrones, shows what heights he can achieve when holding center stage as Kubo. Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey squabble amusingly as the two companions on his journey, Monkey and Beetle. Rooney Mara is particularly chilling as both of Kubo’s mother’s masked twin sisters from the sky, who pursue our hero relentlessly as he travels far and wide in search of his dead father’s magical sword and armor. Ralph Fiennes, George Takei and Brenda Vaccaro round out the cast, and all do fine work.
Dario Marianelli’s lovely score also deserves a mention, adding its own layers of enchantment to the awe-inspiring visual imagery, such as a scene in which Kubo uses his shamisen to conjure a seaworthy galleon out of swirling autumn leaves. The impressions that this work of cinema leave upon the imagination should prove indelible. It’s a timeless work of art, not to be missed.