Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) (PG)

This review contains SPOILERS!
"Kubo and the Two Strings" is the newest animated feat from Laika, the stop-animation company behind "Coraline", "ParaNorman", and "The Boxtrolls" who are slowly establishing themselves as reigning royalty of stop-motion movies. "Kubo and the Two Strings" should be no exception. From the first moment, in which our protagonist tells us not to blink lest we cause the downfall of the hero, the animation is breathtaking. It looks genuine, yet fantastical and it pulled me in quickly. It's baffling how long some people take on this kind of animating style (although for some sequences it seems impossible without the aid of a computer, but maybe we're now having a conversation about the purism of the animating process and not the movie itself).
"Kubo" is a movie about family, death, and the power of love. Thematically, there's nothing incredibly new here, and sometimes the plot turns of the film feel ludicrous and contrived; but the heart of the movie is genuine (and yes, I know how cliche and stupid that sounds, but that doesn't make it less true). The movie is essentially "Harry Potter" with a talking monkey and a beetle samurai guy. Yes, this much has been explained in the trailers and the first time we see these characters it's hard not to roll your eyes and dismiss it.
But magic is important here, and storytelling. "Kubo" if anything, proves that a well told story makes up for the holes in the plot; and this is a very compelling story with a lot of ingenuity in terms of the vehicle of presentation.
The hero's journey begins as a great perilous entity emerges with one goal: to steal his vision, quite literally. Kubo is a plucky, good-hearted child with a natural knack for storytelling and soon the imagery of paper telling the story becomes novel to the movie (see what I did there?).
Kubo's stories that he tells others soon become reality as his world inverts and he must go on a quest narrative to collect protection for himself, lest he fall into the wrong hands and be extinguished forever.
It's pretty simple isn't it? It's almost every fantasy movie we've seen before. It has the epic scope of Jackson and the colorfulness (as well as the darkness) of del Toro, and of course J.K. Rowling's influence should not be forgotten.
For an animated movie, the target demographic feels very mature and you'll notice that "Kubo" doesn't fall into a lot of plot devices that other animated movies do just to tie everything up in a "happy ending". What I appreciate about the movie is that it allows certain actions to be challenging to both the viewer and the protagonist. For this reason, maybe this isn't a kid's movie, although there are some stupidly funny moments geared towards a younger audience.
Sometimes, certain fight sequences between good and evil feel so real you forget that you're watching an animated film, let along something produced by stop-motion. The voice acting is spot-on, except for an out of place Matthew McConaughey, who awkwardly grows into his character. Charlize Theron proves a stern center to the sometimes overwhelming narrative arc. For me, the best part of the movie is the horror-inspired appearance of two henchmen characters voiced by Rooney Mara who is chilling.
But perhaps you should be the judge of this yourself, because "Kubo" is a pleasant, thrilling film that once again reminds us that storytelling should be essential to our lives. At the end, the existential idea of our lives as stories is left hanging in the air as we all climb towards our own endings, praying that they be happy. "Kubo and the Two Strings" reminds us that life is an adventure, but more than that, life isn't always easy. And so, yes, it may be cliche because more mature works would frame the idea differently and little more cleverly; but at moments when the film astonishes, the script is forgivable.
For a movie lauding spoken stories, "Kubo" is a dying art; but art nonetheless.

Score: ★★★

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