There aren’t many animation studios left, but I’m really glad that there’s Laika (who also brought us Coraline and The Boxtrolls), the kind of studio willing to put a lot of craft into their movies (they’re still committed to stop-motion animation!), and tell imaginative tales rooted in folklore and fantasy. Kubo and the Two Strings is an epic quest, framed in an Asian/Japanese tradition. Our young hero/narrator Kubo lives in a cave, where he tends to his ailing mother and where they hide from his grandfather and aunts, who stole one of Kubo’s eyes — classic folk-tale, right? During the day he is safe from his evil family, and heads into town to tell stories to earn money for food. Kubo weaves captivating tales of the samurai Hanso, his banjo playing and his magical origami bringing the story to life. Unfortunately, one evening he does not make it back to the cave before dark, and his wicked aunt appears, flying after him. Kubo only survives when his mother uses up all her magic to save him. To defeat his family, Kubo sets out on a quest to find three pieces of mystical armour, once also sought by the samurai Hanso. Along the way he meets a Monkey, and a Beetle who become his protectors.
I could go on telling the story (I don’t want to spoil too much), but it just has that kind of age-old feel to it that I love. Magic is everywhere, and they don’t need to explain why a monkey can talk, why a samurai warrior is transformed into a beetle, or why a giant skeleton comes alive to defend a magical sword, or why they can sail on a boat made of leaves. I thought it was great how the animation really brought the storytelling to life, especially all the origami bits. I was amazed that the movie was done with stop-motion animation (though I guess I wouldn’t know if there had been some CG snuck in), especially the amazing water effects, with a huge tidal wave in the opening sequence. Everything was not only spectacular, but also very carefully detailed (down to the waves softly lapping onto the beach, and the feathery fur of the Monkey).
The characters may have had folk origins, but they definitely also had a contemporary flavour, being voiced by movie stars such as Charlize Theron (as the Monkey), Ralph Fiennes (as the Moon King) and Matthew McConaughey (as the Beetle). Art Parkinson (who many may not recognize as Rickon Stark from Game of Thrones) was also really good as Kubo. I liked almost everything about this movie, except that it was too short. For such an epic quest, they really needed more time to give the adventure some scope. Kubo seemed to find the second and third pieces of armour much too easily, and everything seemed to rush towards the ending once they hit the second half. Also, with all its cultural and folkloric flavour, the actual resolution to the story seemed very “western” and a little too modern — it seemed like the kind of ending that Disney might have come up with — something that could fit on a Hallmark card. Nevertheless, it’s still something pretty fresh and a pleasure to watch, that I would recommend to young and not-as-young alike. (4 out of 5)