If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see, no matter how unusual it may seem. If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.
The first time I saw the trailer for Kubo and the Two Strings I immediately felt a shiver up and down my spine. My breath caught in my throat. I knew I was watching something that was meant for me.
Kubo and the Two Strings is an animated movie about young Kubo, a boy with a strange and fantastic magical power that brings paper to life with his shamisen. He cares for his ill mother by telling stories in his village of samurai on quests for magical armor and evil kings with monsters. His peaceful life is upended when he realizes his stories are more than stories and he embarks on a quest to protect himself against those who would want to control him and his power. Along the way he is joined by Monkey and Beetle and together Kubo discovers the true strength of memories, love, and compassion.
The story is wonderfully crafted if just a little bit shallow in an attempt to maintain appeal to younger audiences. It does an excellent job of paying homage to traditional Japanese themes and motifs without being blatantly ‘Hollywood Chinatown’. Though samurai beetles and wise monkeys are a common theme in Asian cinema, it was exciting to see it done so well and with such reverence in an American studio. The movie takes us to a place of incredible magic and beautiful settings. There are lessons to be learned in each interaction and the story tenderly captures the feelings of loss and the importance of family. The ending was a bit too…Disney, for me, but even then still, it is a very mature version that deals with true sacrifice. The dialogue is humorous when needed and sentimentally honest the rest of the time. The characters are believable and have just enough layers of complexity and motivation to remind us of real connections.
If you listen to the trailer the trailer song should be immediately recognizable. It is the beautifully haunting While My Guitar Gently Weeps by George Harrison done on the shamisen. I could not stop grinning when I first heard this cover and I knew immediately I’d have to get the movie’s soundtrack. The rest of the movie’s score certainly does not disappoint. It is fittingly epic and yet subdued with traditional Japanese string commanding most of the sound. In much the same way that the movie deals with matters of the heart with delicateness, so too does the soundtrack deal with setting tone and mood. It is gentle, like a breeze, and lifts you to a new place with effortless ease. I highly recommend listening to Story Time from the soundtrack and While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
The movie is animated by Laika Studios, the same studio that brought Coraline and Boxtrolls to life. Two movies by the way, that I also happen to love as examples of effective children’s movies that do not necessarily need to be that cloyingly saccharine sweet type. Movies that center around children and the way they view the world and process their surroundings in a genuine, realistic, and yet still optimistic way. Coraline, Eggs, and Kubo are all very fully realized children with hopes, dreams, insecurities, strengths, and overwhelming weakness but are supported with such structure and care that they find their potential to be great. They promise that struggle
and loss are parts of life but that we are all strong enough to overcome. The other reason why I have such respect and admiration for Laika is their commitment to stop-motion animation. I find it so much more visually appealing to witness an animated film that is not only engaging for its plot but also for its aesthetic. In almost every sequence in the epic samurai saga of Kubo I have to take a moment to ask myself ‘how the hell did they do that’. I have huge respect for the artistry and skill involved in making an animated movie in the way they did and have done for their past four projects. There is dedication but also history and heritage here that keeps a certain beautiful form alive.
Overall this was an incredibly stunning film both visually and auditorily. The story was compelling and delivered wonderful moments of wonder and awe. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and I hope that many of you give it a glance. I certainly hope the best for Kubo because I have to ensure that Studio Laika can continue to make beautiful films with such care and unique detail for many years to come.