Review: ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ is a gorgeous and somber stop-motion fantasy

While I think all animation is a magic trick that remains just as impressive now as the first time I saw it as a child, there are certainly levels of difficulty, and stop-motion animation is a special kind of lunacy. I”ve visited enough stop-motion sets to be awed by the skill set it requires for someone to effectively bring a character to life using such a difficult and painstaking method. It is sincerely meant then as praise when I say that I can”t imagine the single-minded pursuit of vision it took to bring Kubo and the Two Strings to life, and Travis Knight is, indeed, a madman.

Travis Knight is, like Megan Ellison, a rich kid doing something profoundly interesting with the position of privilege they found themselves in. Ellison has fascinating taste as a producer, and she”s become a sort of life raft for filmmakers who might otherwise not find a willing patron in today”s commercial climate. Knight”s lifelong fascination with stop-motion animation led him to Laika, a company that has built a very strange and lovely filmography over the course of their first decade. Coraline is a film I adore, even as I acknowledge that it is absolutely terrifying to children. You can”t call that a movie for kids because most kids can”t make it through the thing. It is pure nightmare machine to them. I really like Paranorman, a film that feels like the kind of scary that is just scary enough for young audiences, smart without pulling any punches. I”m not crazy about The Boxtrolls, but it is technically just as dazzling as their other work.

All of it feels like a warm-up for Kubo and the Two Strings, though. This is a sprawling epic fantasy with a very personal focus, and it feels like it creates an entire world. Impressively, this isn”t an adaptation of anything and it”s not a pre-sold property. It”s just an original fairy tale told against a Japanese backdrop, conceived by Knight when he was a young boy reading fantasy novels and traveling to Asia with his father for business. The screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler is direct and moving and unapologetically poetic. This is not an easy commercial version of this story, and I admire Knight for that. This is his first film directing, and he”s swinging for the fences. He tries to evoke Kurosawa and Lean and Tolkien here, and in the film”s best moments, he”s certainly in the right neighborhood.

Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a boy who lives in an isolated cave with his mother. They are hiding from her twin sisters (voiced by Rooney Mara) and from Raiden the Moon King (voiced by Ralph Fiennes), Kubo”s grandfather, who wants to pluck out Kubo”s right eye to match the left one that he took when Kubo was born. They manage to hide for many years, but one night, Kubo”s acute loneliness drives him to break one of his mother”s key rules, and as a result, they are found. Kubo is launched onto a quest for the three artifacts that protected his father, accompanied by a Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a Beetle samurai (Matthew McConaughey).

Yes, I”m aware how ridiculous that entire paragraph sounds, but Kubo works because it is so direct, so honest about the emotional story it”s telling. Knight may have epic ambitions, but he keeps the stakes very personal. While The Moon King waxes rhapsodic at one point about terrible things he”ll do, this isn”t a movie about saving the world. This is about Kubo having to accept who he is and how he fits into his terrible family, with all of its imperfections, and it is about the power of love and forgiveness no matter how great a wrong you feel someone”s done to you. These are important things, and Knight dramatizes them here, making them the real milestones that Kubo is struggling to reach. The quest for the sword and the armor and the magical helmet gives the film a shape, but those things aren”t what really matters. This is a very strong example of how you can tell a “hero”s journey” story and still make it feel fresh and original and like something we haven”t heard before.

Knight knows the difference between a satisfying ending and a happy ending, and Kubo is a deeply satisfying film. It may be a little melancholy for younger viewers, but that could simply be an opportunity to talk to kids about how life does not always give us what we expect, especially when it comes to the people in our lives. Dario Marianelli”s score is outstanding, and Frank Passingham”s photography gives this all the epic sweep of a live-action epic and all the expressive palette work of a traditional Japanese watercolor. Kubo is special, and I suspect that for the people who love it, this will be a closely-held favorite, something they take as personally as the people who made it did in the first place.

Kubo and the Two Strings opens in theaters everywhere today.