Kubo and the Two Strings, in theaters August 19, reminded me that animated movies can be more than slick CG products. Kubo and the Two Strings is entertaining, yes, but it’s also art.
Kubo and the Two Strings is set in a Japanese-esque world. Kubo (Art Parkinson) and his mother are hiding from her sisters and their father, who took Kubo’s left eye. Kubo is tasked with caring for his mother, who is losing her mind. Kubo and his mother possess magic. This magic allows them to manipulate paper, as well as use a small guitar like a force field, or a grenade.
Kubo visits the village every evening. He entertains the crowd with stories about a warrior. His stories come to life in the origami figures and props he creates with his magic. Among the villagers, Kubo begins to question his past, longing to know more about his father. This longing keeps him out after dark, one night, which sets off the events of the story.
I attended a 3D screening of Kubo and the Two Strings. Normally, I don’t see 3D movies. I don’t think they’re worth the extra ticket cost. However, Kubo and the Two Strings is so lush, so colorful, so beautiful, that paying for a 3D ticket is definitely worth it. The depth of perspective is wonderful, even in the final scenes, when usually we’ve been conditioned to not see in 3D anymore.
While I watched Kubo and the Two Strings, I realized that I had been wanting to see something new in animation. I realized that I wanted to see an animated movie that is boldly artistic.
For instance, I just watched The Good Dinosaur for the first time. I thought to myself, wow, this looks so realistic! I was impressed with how accurately Pixar captured waving fields of grain, and raging rapids, and thunderous clouds. But watching Kubo and the Two Strings, I thought, YES. I’ve had enough of animators looking to recreate reality by pushing the technology of CG. I’m even tired of movies like The Secret Life of Pets, that seem realistic, like in the texture of fur and architecture, but alter only color and light. They seem to look original while also saying, “Hey, we know how to make fur look real too!”
Kubo and the Two Strings is completely original in its animation. At times, I thought I was watching stop-motion animation. But other times, I thought, there’s no way this is stop-motion animation. Turns out, it’s both. LAIKA, the animation studio behind Coraline and The Boxtrolls, combines stop-motion animation and CG animation seamlessly.
Kubo and the Two Strings was like watching two stories, for me. I was engrossed in Kubo’s tragic and triumphant tale, but I was also captivated by simply looking at the movie. Kubo’s power over paper is echoed in LAIKA’s power to animate everything to look like origami.
The story of Kubo and the Two Strings is simple, but powerful. Kubo goes on a quest to find magical armor that will protect him from his grandfather. He is aided by Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Along the way, they overcome obstacles and battle evil forces. Thankfully, there are no irreverent cut-away scenes, no pop culture references, and no mumbled asides that are accompanied by eye rolls. I enjoy an animated movie that doesn’t rely on “real world” humor at the expense of suspending disbelief. Kubo’s world is entertaining enough.
In fact, Kubo’s world is very mysterious. Kubo and the Two Strings poses questions, right from the start, that keep you guessing until the end. The title alone is it’s own question, because Kubo’s guitar has three strings. Not every question gets answered, but the most important questions are.
The importance of family is woven in and out of action sequences very deftly. For the most part, Kubo’s feelings about family are filled with sadness, thanks to the loss of his loved ones. But his escape from the evil forces who chase him draws him closer to Monkey and Beetle. The three of them wind up forming a family of their own. As they become aware of their bonds, and their fondness for each other, the message is that a family is whatever you want it to be, not necessarily the people to whom you were born.
The importance of family is also evident in the villagers’ ceremony to communicate with loved ones they’ve lost. Furthermore, over and over, family members sacrifice themselves for the people they love. (I confess, I was pretty teary several times during the movie. Kind of embarrassing at a press screening!)
Matthew McConaughey surprised me with his performance. I’m so used to his “alright alright alright” personality and his Texas twang. I thought I would be pulled out of the story every time Beetle spoke. Plus, not every Academy Award winner or movie star can pull off voice-over work. However, McConaughey’s performance is funny, endearing, touching and unique.
Charlize Theron’s performance was just as lovely. At first, the natural, almost modern, pace of her delivery was jarring. But as the movie progressed, it became clear it was a style, and part of the character. Mostly, she’s just funny!
Don’t let the fact that Kubo and the Two Strings is an animated movie fool you. There are some terribly sad and scary sequences. My 10 year-old wasn’t that scared. Tiny people will be.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a marvelous movie. I look forward to seeing it rack up awards in the coming months.