“Kubo and the Two Strings” is an ode to storytelling. It appreciates that history is not nearly as important as the stories that history inspires, as they fulfill the potential that the truth merely hints at, for better or worse. Thus, storytelling is a mighty weapon and more than fit to decorate the arsenal of any hero.
Appropriately, the movie begins with a declaration, entreating the audience to pay close attention, for every detail matters—it’s almost a taunt. It brought to mind the opening of Orson Welles’ “F for Fake,” which declares an object as not symbolic, because it “isn’t that kind of movie.” From there, the film goes into a story within a story, and we witness Kubo as a street performer, spinning his tales with nothing but his guitar and paper, and a little magic. Back home, he takes care of his mother, who suffers from severe brain damage. On her good days, she enthusiastically tells Kubo stories of his father, a great warrior, and on her bad days, she says nothing at all. This is compelling enough, but an adventure is called for, so Kubo’s town is devastated and he ends up in the care of a monkey, who aptly goes by “Monkey.” After some more companions are acquired, the group sets off to assemble some ancient artifacts and vanquish a mysterious evil—you know, quest stuff.
There’s something to be said of Kubo’s weapon for fighting evil. It is not a sword or a bow and arrow, but a musical instrument. And it’s not used to smash enemies over the head with; it’s used to manipulate the world, as a great story can manipulate the mind. Even the “final boss” isn’t necessarily defeated — more repurposed. This is a refreshingly thoughtful turn of events in the animated/adventure movie landscape, which is so congested with mindless whack-a-mole antics.
For a film marketed to children, the story is slow and methodical. It flirts with a host of fairy tale tropes, then pivots toward the unexpected. Only Matthew McConaughey’s character, Beetle, is there to dish out the broad comedy, and his shtick can be a bit grating at times. Along with McConaughey, the film incorporates a number of talented folks, including Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara and Art Parkinson as Kubo. Even George Takei shows up to deliver an “oh, my.”
From purely a visual standpoint, the movie is mesmerizing and bursting at the seams with artistry. As the introduction informs us, every detail matters. There’s a boat made of autumn leaves, a compass in the form of an origami soldier and two masked, cackling witches draped in raven wings, to name a few of the ocular wonders. I’m not sure how much of the animation is handmade and how much is aided by computers, but the amount of emotion they’re able to extract from a clay figure is astounding. Not to mention, there’s an old lady in the beginning of the film who has some record-breaking comic timing.
You won’t necessarily find a happy ending in “Kubo and the Two Strings,” but you will find understanding—the understanding that happiness isn’t a result, but a state of mind. It is for this reason that the villain doesn’t wish to kill anyone or destroy anything, but instead to blind and distort. With ideas like this at play, “Kubo” puts those silly “adult” films to shame.
4 out of 5 stars