In this, my first review, as in any to come, I will try to avoid spoilers as much as I can but when reviewing something, it’s very difficult to give nothing away, so be warned, (some) spoilers ahead.
What first called my attention to this movie was the visual aspect. I was really looking forward to it. It was only shortly before I watched it that I learnt it was a stop motion animation. Well, that sealed it for me. I absolutely had to see it now. I wasn’t disappointed.
I am no expert in stop motion, I haven’t seen many movies made with this technology. Coraline and The Corpse Bride are the only other feature films I’ve seen in stop motion, other than the children’s TV show Pingu.
As good as the above mentioned movies might have been, Kubo and the Two Strings is simply stunning and, for me, superior to them. From the character design to their fluidity, the detail is exquisite. Part of the success of this movie with me is the East Asian inspired design (I love everything Asian!).
Now, I am not a tech geek. I know many people who could comment in depth on the change of light and scenery, the design, angles and everything there is to know about the way this movie is filmed. All I can comment on is my experience as a spectator and, visually, I found it incredible.
What I wasn’t sure about when I sat down to watch Kubo was the story. The trailer didn’t give much away. Sure, there were a couple of villains and if you watch some of the behind the scenes videos (see one here) you’ll get to see another few monsters as well as Kubo’s companions, but nothing telling you much about the story. Sometimes, and especially in animation, I am afraid that the trailer gave us all the good parts and there is nothing left in the movie.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the case.
The story has the flare of an old Asian epic and carries on themes of family, identity and even storytelling, through to the end.
Now, if you’re a mum, like me, and you suffer from that post-partum extra sensitivity that never leaves you, this is going to pull at the heart strings from the very beginning. You’d think Pixar made it, although Laika was less cruel to its characters.
The story is well paced, keeping you interested from early on. It’s not devoid of humour either although it is more subtle than what we might be used to in animation. I was pleasantly surprised at the cleverness of the dialogue. It carries the story well and enhances its classical quest plot line.
Kubo is a baby when the story starts but we jump ahead quite quickly to his childhood, when he takes care of his mother and earns a living by telling stories that literally take life as he plays his music. Kubo is a storyteller and a talented one, the whole village is waiting for him to come and tell them of Hanso, the great hero, who also happens to be his father. But it doesn’t take long for tragedy to hit his home and small family (because otherwise there wouldn’t be a story to tell) and Kubo finds himself in trouble very quickly.
As the quest starts, we meet Kubo’s companions, Monkey and Beetle. Their role is as expected, to protect and guide our hero and, although they have a twist of their own, its easy to see where it’s going.
As for the villains, or the main villain, he is made into an imposing character long before you get to see him which, you might have guessed, is not until the end. In the meantime, his minions were haunting, powerful and, well, scary.
The true twists in this movie come in the final battle, where the theme of storytelling and, through it, memory, are exacerbated.
I’m going to break from reviewing the movie for a second and comment on this. As most people know, before the written word was made available to the wider public with the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in the 15th Century CE, books were then all handwritten and extremely expensive. Stories were transmitted orally. Because of that, the stories were, you could say, alive, as they changed through each telling, each storyteller, adding here, changing there, highlighting this or that. Once the word was printed, the stories became fixed in time and place. Now stories are always available, both in books and movies, so there is no more need for storytellers like Kubo, with the ability to bring a story to life with their words and, in his case, music.
This aspect of storytelling – and music – (getting back to the movie) is brilliantly interpreted by Kubo’s powers, and it’s what is highlighted throughout the movie, as well as the power of memories, usually transmitted through these stories. I will not give details of the ending, of course, but this was the most unexpected part of the movie for me and touches on the themes of identity in a way that doesn’t leave you indifferent. It stayed with me and made me think about the source of who we are and how we come to that conclusion.
Like any movie, it has its faults. It carries too many themes for me and would do better to stick to one or two, as well as some of the story turns being a bit predictable, but the main one isn’t and I liked that. The acting is on point but, of course, with the big names on the cast, you could hardly expect anything else. A note on that, I didn’t know George Takei had a role in this movie before I watched it, but I didn’t need to. He’s easy to spot!
I really enjoyed this movie. Considering the world of remakes and reboots in which the (American) film industry is currently living, this is a breath of fresh air. Very recommendable for the whole family.