New On Circuit: Kubo and the Two Strings
Director: Travis Knight
Cast: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey
RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)
HAUNTING, scary and enchanting, Laika’s latest production is an original story that features an appealing main character and richly detailed backgrounds you can almost touch.
Origami-inspired magic, colour-rich scenery straight out of House of Flying Daggers and a plucky little hero make for a beautifully animated, bewitching coming-of-age story. Whimsical moments are deftly mixed up with nightmares and death is treated as a different state of being rather than an ending, which is a Western take on a Japanese conceit.
So, too, the idea of emphasising authenticity of experience over perfection draws on our way of understanding the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. Kubo (voiced by Parkinson) is a kind-hearted pre-teen living in a cliff-side cave overlooking a tiny village in ancient Japan. He spends his days looking after his forgetful mother and busking in the village – using magic to animate origami figures and his shamisen to tell stories. When Kubo stays out after dark one night – despite repeated admonishments not to – dark spirits attack him and the stories his mother told him about their family come to stark and frightening life.
On the run, looking for his father’s armour as potential protection, Kubo is aided by wise, practical Monkey (Theron) and warrior-like Beetle (McConaughey).The three travel as Kubo learns to hone his magic and hide from his creepy aunties who want to take him to his grandfather – who wants nothing more than to steal his eye.
While the storyline itself is a simple quest adventure, the film also revolves around the idea that storytelling is important because that is how we remember people. Adults will tap into the broadly melancholic streak running through the film – not only is it centred on the question of what is it that ties us to the rest of humanity, but it is also about memory and loss and the harsh demands of family loyalty. Kubo’s mother has told him many stories about his father, but often loses the thread of her own re-telling and the child is the one who patiently reassures her that all is well. When the dark night creatures come after him, Kubo has to grow up fast and accept that all is, indeed, not well.
Why not five stars? The unsatisfactory, pat Hollywood ending of the very last scene is just out of keeping with the rest of the film which, while predicated on a simple plot, is not the usual fare. So the last scene undermines the theme of moving forward after losing a lost one. Also, Theron and McConaughey are rather blandly vanilla voice artists considering their considerable acting skill – and it isn’t just a question of whether an Asian accent could have better served the character better. After all, Gillian Anderson did a great job as Moro, and Minnie Driver nailed Lady Eboshi in the English version of Princess Mononoke. Both Theron and McConaughey seem to confuse cool and practical with unemotional, to distracting effect, unlike Parkinson who is engaging.
If you liked ParaNorman or The Boxtrolls you will like this.