Possible alternate title: Kubo the One-Eyed Rock & Roll Samurai Wizard.
Young Kubo lives in a cave in the mountains with his sometimes-catatonic mother. Every day, he goes into town and entertains the locals with a little song and dance. He’s not the one dancing, though – Kubo leaves that to his enchanted origami. He tells the story of Hanzo, his brave father who gave his life to save Kubo and his mother from his wicked grandfather and aunts. But when Hanzo’s insidious in-laws catch up to Kubo, he must quest for his father’s legendary sword and armour, to defeat his family once and for all.
Travis Knight’s Kubo and the Two Strings is among the best and freshest takes on the monomyth in modern cinema. The well-worn structure is clearly there (executed immaculately, with a bit of a philosophical twist at the end), but underneath stellar design and animation. You’ll find the magic of Kubo in the details and character: Kubo’s innate ability to animate paper for fun and function through his trusty shamisen; Monkey, the down-to-business spirit guide; Beetle, Kubo’s newfound samurai-turned-bugman comrade.
The performances are pleasantly sincere. In an age where name-brand actors are being tacked onto animated features so relentlessly, it’s refreshing to see a film where it’s not oh-so-obviously phoned in. Particularly enticing is Charlize Theron as Kubo’s aforementioned magical helper, Monkey. Her tone is that of patience, love and strength, behind a strict and no-nonsense Japanese macaque. Kubo isn’t beyond scoring cheap and easy pop culture points, however, with George Takei regurgitating his iconic “Oh my!” as one of his very few lines.
But when it really comes down to it, the animation and design is where it’s at. There is no better example of stop-motion animation: the quality of Kubo tops all predecessors. At times, its cleanliness and smoothness is at the same level of today’s standard CG features – but without abandoning that indefinable stop-motion aesthetic, and all-around charm. Particularly notable – and just downright cool – are the fight scenes. Intense and awe-striking, it’s near impossible to conceive that these are 10” dolls on a soundstage flipping, jabbing and slashing one frame at a time. A monkey with a samurai sword facing off against a space crow witch atop of a pirate ship made of autumn foliage? It just might be the best action sequence you’ll see all summer.
By far animation company Laika’s best production since Coraline, Kubo and the Two Strings makes it a disappointment that there aren’t more stop-motion studios out there exploring the infamously underused style.
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Trevor Jeffery: @TrevorSJeffery