Friday, September 23, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (Travis Knight, 2016)

Childhood for the one-eyed boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) is magical and mystifying in the stop-motion animated KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS. He brings origami to life as he tells enchanting stories to the villagers near the cave where he and his mother are hiding out. Kubo can shred his three-stringed musical instrument, a samisen, like MAD MAX: FURY ROAD’s Doof Warrior, although no fire shoots out of the neck. While these are marvelous skills for a kid wield, there is much for him to be concerned about. His mother is ill, and and his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), has killed Kubo’s samurai father and is responsible for the eyepatch the boy must wear. Kubo’s mother insists that he always carry a monkey totem and be home before sundown lest her two sisters (Rooney Mara) and the Moon King find them and complete the task they did not finish.

One night Kubo stays out past his curfew with the predicted tragic results. The Sisters torch the village and try to harm Kubo, but his mother uses her magic to save him and send him on quest. To defend himself from the Moon King Kubo must search ancient Japan for an unbreakable sword, impenetrable armor, and invulnerable helmet. Helping him on his journey are Monkey (Charlize Theron), which is the enlarged totem brought to life, and the samurai Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a forgetful, wise-cracking insect.

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS comes from the animation studio Laika, which, with the films CORALINE, PARANORMAN, and THE BOXTROLLS, has developed a reputation for delivering quality children’s fare that is unafraid of handling material that can be visually and thematically darker. The deep oranges and dark blues dominate the palette for a story steeped in legend, like something witnessed through the flickering flames deep in the belly of a cave. The stop-motion animation provides a tactile sense of wonder at the imaginations tapped to bring this fantastical and early historical world to life in the style of folded paper.

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS puts two kinds of immortality in opposition. The Moon King offers Kubo the chance to live forever with him among the stars, although the price to be paid is his one good eye. Alternatively, the boy can find strength and inspiration in the memories of his deceased parents to resist the Moon King and, in turn, survive through generations because of the bravery he shows. This may sound like rather heavy subject matter--and it is, implicitly--but director Travis Knight and screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler treat this as a grand challenge to be met with the spiritual guidance of his mother and father than an oppression heaped upon a protagonist unsuited to deal with it.

The film is not left wanting for humor, however. Theron’s voicework reveals a delicacy in the figure entrusted to assist Kubo, but she also brings a sarcastic edge to Monkey, especially as she clashes with Beetle. At face value McConaughey seems like a curious casting decision, as he makes no effort to alter his Texas drawl, but the warmth and orneriness in his voice serves the act-before-thinking character well. The love-hate dynamic between Monkey and Beetle produces some amusing sparring. Likewise, Kubo’s journey encompasses the spectrum of emotion, concluding with a beautiful testament to the ties that bind. The importance of family is hardly a new theme for children’s entertainment, but the gentleness and unsentimentalized handling of it in KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS allows the idea to be seen anew.

Grade: B+

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