Director: Travis Knight
Writers: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler
Cast: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei
Kubo and the Two Strings is the fourth film from the animation studio Laika and is it their best work to date. To be clear, their previous efforts – Coraline, Paranorman and The Box Trolls – received favourable reviews and did respectable business at the box office. But in a year that has had a high bench mark set for animated features with both Zootopia and Finding Dory shattering all sorts of box office records and receiving rave responses from critics, Kubo surprised me with its quality and may well end up as my favourite animated film of the year.
Over ten years in the making and the first film to be directed by studio president Travis Knight, Kubo and the Two Strings makes you sit up and take notice from the opening shot of the film which makes clear that it has the world class production values and confidence in story telling to rival the best works of Pixar and Dreamworks. In fact, Kubo is exactly the sort of the film that makes me wish that more studios would invest in animated features. Kubo manages to be both technically accomplished and accessible to all ages whilst retaining a clear identity of its own – it never feels like it is cribbing from any of the other major studios to tell its story.
“If you must blink do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see and hear no matter how unusual it may seem.”
And what a story it is.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a fable that gives its young audience a lot of credit and never condescends to them. This is a children’s tale that has the darkness and sharp edges of a Brothers Grimm or a Roald Dahl yarn.
We are first introduced to the eponymous hero Kubo when his mother Sariatu barely survives a stormy night at sea as she attempts to whisk her son to safety from the clutches of her evil sisters and father. The pair survive with their lives but it comes at a cost. Kubo’s left eye is claimed by his grandfather and Sariatu never fully recovers from her ordeal. She becomes an ill recluse who seldom speaks and has a fading memory. The pair live out of their days in a tiny cave at the top of a mountain.
Each day, Kubo travels down from the mountain to visit the local village where he busks for money to buy food and drink for his mother. We see that Kubo has a gift for storytelling which captures the attention of the villagers. He enamours them with stories of the great warrior Hanzo, Kubo’s estranged father whose fate remains unknown. After earning some coin, Kubo must hurry home before nightfall. Stay out after dark and he risks drawing the attention of the Moon King who will come to claim his other eye.
As you’d expect, there finally comes a day when Kubo doesn’t return home before sun down and this alerts the Moon King to his whereabouts. Sariatu sacrifices herself to temporarily impede her sisters from reaching Kubo who is magicked away to a far-flung mountain pass. There he meets Monkey, an ally and companion who explains to Kubo that he must quest for three special objects that once belonged to Hanzo, in order to defeat the Moon King – The Armor Impenetrable, The Sword Unbreakable, The Helmet Invulnerable.
This lays out the journey ahead for Kubo. It’s a mission that will take him through many colourful landscapes, crossing swords with all sorts of perilous enemies. On his travels Kudo will be introduced to some strange and wonderful allies such as an origami samurai who points the way forward like a compass and the loud-mouthed Beetle, a once famous knight who suffers from amnesia and is now permanently adorned with a suit of armour in the shape of, well, a beetle.
What makes Kubo and the Two Strings such a resounding success is the sure-footed direction from Travis Knight. There’s actually quite a detailed narrative for the audience to unpack but Knight has managed to let the story breathe whilst keeping room for some delightful moments of interplay between Kubo, Monkey and Beetle. Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey all do a wonderful job bringing their characters to life. Their bond with one another is the heart and soul of a film that throws plenty of action and spectacle at the screen. These sequences hold our attention not just because they are artfully shot and feature some wonderfully designed monsters and creatures, but because we actually care about the fate of Kubo and his friends.
Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the best cinematic adaptations of the Hero’s Journey that I have seen in years. Like the ones that did it the best – Star Wars IV: A New Hope, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Princess Bride and The Never Ending Story – this film has a great underdog hero, a likeable cast of allies and an entertaining journey filled with trials and ordeals that must be overcome in order to confront the Big Bad. One of the year’s most pleasant surprises.