Movie review: Kubo and the Two Strings
Son of Nike co-founder fuses bits of Greek myth with Japanese folklore to create an original kids’ movie that understands the surreal angst of childhood
Kubo and the Two Strings
Four stars out of five
Starring: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara
Directed by: Travis Knight
Running time: 1hr 41 mins
MPAA Rating: Parental Guidance
By Katherine Monk
As the son of Nike CEO Phil Knight, Travis Knight probably knew what it was like to feel a bit different from the other kids: Special and blessed, but also cursed, never knowing who was a real friend, and who was just looking for the inside track on a sample pair of Air Jordans.
It may be one of the reasons why the young Knight didn’t follow in his father’s well-cushioned footsteps and created Laika Entertainment, an animation studio in Portland that specializes in stop-motion production using analog miniatures and high-tech digital printers.
It may also be one of the reasons why Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest from Laika and Knight’s directorial debut, has such a palpable connection to the swirling emotions of childhood.
Fear of abandonment, a yearning for praise, a budding sense of self and a burning desire for love are all neatly folded into this stylish piece of cinematic origami. It’s also smart enough to know what origami is, where its traditional roots lie and even how to poke fun at paper folding purists with the line: “I’m not even sure that’s origami…. I smell the use of scissors.”
Okay. On paper, it may not sound all that funny. But imagine a thousand pieces of coloured paper folding themselves into everything from boats to warriors, and you begin to see what makes Kubo and the Two Strings such a refreshing change from formula.
We may have seen stories of boy heroes on a magical quest and young avatars brought to life with armatures and clay, but we’ve never really seen anything like this before.
Kubo and the Two Strings is an entirely original script about a little boy named Kubo. Taken into hiding by his mother when he was just an infant, Kubo has only one eye but a budding magical power. He can make origami forms come to life when he plucks the strings on his Japanese shamisen, but he can’t seem to make his mother happy.
Forlorn and paranoid, his mother issues strict rules, and try as Kubo may, he can’t always obey. He wants to know about his absent father, and though he was told to never stay out after sunset, Kubo feels it’s important to light a lantern for his family spirits.
The gesture had the right intent, but the result is a visit from two witches with white porcelain masks. They are terrifying, and tough luck for Kubo: they are his two aunts, and they want his other eye.
Any auntie who wants to take away an eyeball is a bad aunt, indeed, but these two are eerie incarnations of evil. Picking up on every stitch of the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz, the animators give them black cloaks and pointy hats, as well as the ability to float over the tiny sets like gassy shadows.
They’re great villains, but this movie goes a bit deeper with the psychology and the spiritual. The aunts want Kubo’s eye so they can give it to their grandfather, a magical deity in heaven who dislikes humans, and disowned Kubo’s mother when she fell in love with a mortal Samurai warrior.
If Kubo can see other humans, he will see their souls and stick around on Earth, delaying his presence in heaven, and his first meeting with grandfather.
If he’s going to survive a battle with the gods, he needs a little help, and like a one-eyed Perseus, he starts collecting the perfect magical trio: a glowing golden sword, armor and helmet.
By sewing classic Greek myth and traditional Japanese lore together using just enough Disney chintz to keep its shape, the screenwriters concoct a story that has a sense of depth and place, as well as a mythical mood.
Everything fits in this film, whether it’s the cunning blend of analog and digital techniques, the emotional phrasing and visuals, or even just the odd presence of Matthew McConaughey, perhaps the only member of the talented vocal cast who is immediately recognizable, despite his on-screen appearance as a giant beetle.
Parking his Lincoln voice in the garage, McConaughey revs his comedy skills opposite Charlize Theron’s perfect deadpan as ‘Monkey’, giving young Art Parkinson plenty to work with as Kubo – a good kid in an entirely unreal situation.
It’s Kubo’s ability to cope with the weirdness of it all that makes the movie so charming, and it’s where Knight really proves himself as more than just a storyteller or puppeteer. In the midst of all this meticulous trickery, Knight never loses the emotional buzz. It’s always there, threatening a fatal sting at any moment.
The best kids’ movies can negotiate life and death without pandering or auto-asphyxiating in sentiment, and that’s exactly what Knight’s movie does. It captures the metaphysical dilemma of childhood and plucks an emotional symphony on two strings.
THE EX-PRESS, August 19, 2016