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Kubo and the Two Strings
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Forget The Cute Quote--Go And See This"
5 stars

As has been noted before, this past summer was not exactly a particularly robust one for moviegoers, especially those looking for something that might entertain the entire family. Sure, “Finding Dory” was quite good but it inevitably lacked the uniqueness of the original. Meanwhile, Steven Spielberg’s wildly overhyped “The BFG” was a tonal mess that never quite came together while the likes of “The Secret Life of Pets” and “Ice Age 5” were dispiriting drags that failed to work on any level, though the box office failure of the latter suggests that even little kids starved for entertainment have their limits. And yet, in the dog days of August—a time when families are more focused on returning to school than in hitting the multiplex—two of the very best family films in recent years have appeared in as many weeks. Last week, you will recall, saw the release of “Pete’s Dragon,” a remake of the lumbering 1977 Disney behemoth that turned out to be a funny, touching and exciting work that was everything that “The BFG” wished that it was. As good as that film is, this week’s “Kubo and the Two Strings” might actually be even better—a visually stunning and dramatically exciting fantasy epic for all ages that puts most of the bombastic would-be blockbusters of the last few months to shame.

Set in medieval Japan, our hero is Kubo (Art Parkinson), a young boy with a missing eye who comes to a small village every day to entertain passersby with an elaborate bit of storytelling that he accompanies himself with via a stack of origami paper that folds into the characters in his story and a shamisen—basically a two-string guitar—that he plays to literally bring the papers to vivid life. Unfortunately, he rarely get a chance to actually complete his story because he has promised his ailing mother (Charlize Theron), with whom he lives in a remote cave and to whom he has promised never to stay out after dusk because of the possible dangers. As it turns out, she isn’t merely being overprotective—she is the magically-endowed daughter of the fearsome Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and after her father and her two sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara) have killed her husband, the famed samurai Hanzo, and stolen one of Kubo’s eyes, she flees with him knowing that as long as they are well hidden after dark, they are relatively safe. One night, however, Kubo stays out too long and is found by his evil aunts who try to make off with his other eye. His mother arrives in the nick of time to save him by using the last bit of magic that she possesses but winds up dying from the effort.

Knowing full well of the powers of the Moon King and his evil aunties, Kubo knows that he cannot keep running and hiding. To that end, he decides to set off on a quest to find the three items that formerly belonged to his father that he will need to acquire in order to face off against them—the Sword Unbreakable, the Armor Impenetrable and the Helmet Invulnerable. Of course, anyone setting off on a grand quest needs a couple of companions to accompany him along the way and that is certainly the case here. First, there is Monkey (Theron doing double duty), a no-nonsense simian who is determined to protect Kubo at all costs while on their journey. Later on, they come across Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a creature who looks like a combination of a beetle and a samurai who claims to have fought and died at Hanzo’s side and looks at this quest as a way of doing right by his mentor and his son. That said, his approach is a little goofier and he and Monkey are constantly at odds with each other even as they find themselves acting as surrogate parents to Kubo. Their journey takes them across land and sea and finds Kubo making surprising discoveries about who he is before his final confrontation with the Moon King, who offers him the gifts of immortality and the removal of all earthly concerns in exchange for his all-important other eye.

“Kubo and the Two Strings” is the latest endeavor from Laika, an animation studio that specializes in films that unite offbeat storytelling and a unique visual style that blends together CGI imagery with sophisticated stop-motion animation—their previous efforts have included such films as “Coraline,” “Paranorman” and “The Boxtrolls.” In terms of sheer quality, this is a studio that is at the top of its game because while they may not be cranking out several films a year like their competitors, their works are visually stunning and dramatically ambitious in the way that they avoid the obvious formulas and tell stories that are involving for children and adults alike. (Even “The Boxtrolls,” which is the one film of theirs that does not quite work for me, is more of an ambitious failure than anything else and better than most of the filmed deal memos that are most family entertainments today.) The only drawback is that despite the care that has clearly been lavished on them, they have never come close to having the box-office success of their competitors—the total gross of one of their films tends to equal the first or second weekend haul of most of their rivals.

However, the success of an ambitious work like “Zootopia” and the tanking of “Ice Age 5” suggests that kids are in the mood for something different and “Kubo and the Two Strings” is that and much more. This is a gloriously exciting and entertaining yarn in which practically everything works. From a visual standpoint, it is absolutely gorgeous—the characters have a distinct and offbeat look to them that separates them from most CGI creations and virtually every scene offer up a new delight to look at (my favorite being the sight of Kubo’s origami figures dong battle in the sky during his storytelling. From a narrative standpoint, it is kind of brilliant in the way that it tells the standard boy-on-a-quest saga without resorting to the usual cliches of that particular genre and it even finds an amusing way to comment on the one weak aspect of the previous Laika joints, the way that their endings don’t quite live up to what came before them—before finally coming with an eminently satisfying one. I also liked the fact that it is a film that doesn’t condescend to its younger audience—death is an integral part to this story and it deals with that touchy subject in a refreshingly straightforward manner.

The vocal performances are also quite striking and it is clear that director Travis Knight cast the roles for the quality of the performances and not just to get a bunch of famous names in the cast, which is too often the case. As young Kubo, Art Parkinson has to pretty much cover the performance waterfront—at various times, he needs to be plucky and resourceful fierce and determined and scared and achingly vulnerable—and he nails every aspect. Charlize Theron gets more laughs that one might think possible from voicing the part of a taciturn snow monkey and Matthew McConaughey is right up there with her as the intensely loyal, if occasionally awkward, Beetle. On the evil side of the equation, Ralph Fiennes brings out the menace as the Moon King without simply reviving his portrayal of Voldemort and Rooney Mara brings a spark to her turn as the two evil witches that, frankly, is generally lacking in her actual on-camera performances. Yes, one could register a complaint about the logic of making a film with Japanese character that have been voiced almost entirely by non-Japanese performers (though George Takei does get to essay a small supporting part) but the performances are so good that even those complaining about the lack of Asian actors will be hard-pressed to find fault with the contributions of the cast.

“Kubo and the Two Strings” is a delight in practically every imaginable area—even the 3-D photography is sparkling enough to actually be worth the upgrade—but is it possible that it is too good and too sophisticated for its target audience? After all, an Asian-themed animated story that doesn’t involve kung-fu pandas and such may not be the biggest viewer draw and the ads and commercials do not even begin to present a sense of the real wonders contained within the film. That would be a shame because this film is a wonder—the kind that will delight kids and their parents in equal measure right now and that those kids will one day proudly pass on to their own offspring as well.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=28376&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/19/16 11:18:23
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User Comments

10/01/16 Jeff Faulkner so good, should win best animated picture. 5 stars
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  19-Aug-2016 (PG)
  DVD: 22-Nov-2016


  DVD: 22-Nov-2016

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