The word ‘story’ is frequently mentioned throughout animation feature film “Kubo and the Two Strings”, and that word always generate certain tingling feelings while reminding us of the power of good storytelling inside and outside its deceptively simple but immensely enchanting and compelling fairy tale. After my hurried entrance to the screening room, my beating heart and sweating body soon became relaxed as my mind was soothed by its gorgeous visual moments decorated with stylish cultural touches, and I was enthralled by its superb artistic achievement while also touched by its affecting mix of adventure story and coming-of-age drama.
The story begins with the prologue scene which shows how Kubo and his mother came to hide away from their dangerous family when he was a young baby. His mother was once one of immortal entities under the command of her powerful father Moon King, but then she found herself fatefully falling in love with a samurai warrior who was supposed to be eliminated as ordered by her father. Not long after her son was born, she and her son had to run away from her father after Kubo’s father sacrificed himself to save his wife and son, and she eventually managed to find their shelter in a small cave located in some beach area.
Several years have passed since that, and Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) grows up a lot. This plucky one-eyed boy can excite and enthrall the people of a nearby town with his fabulous storytelling accompanied with a series of magical origami shows and his precious three-string instrument which originally belonged to his mother, and this exquisite sequence is just one of many visual pleasures to be savored in the film.
Meanwhile, Kubo’s mother has recently become more fragile and deteriorated than before, and the absence of the father he never knew only accentuates the growing concern and grief inside Kubo. That leads him to a ritual at the local cemetery, which is held for the memories of the departed during the town festival day. As many paper lanterns are floated along the river at the end of the ritual, we cannot help but be drawn to this lovely moment in sunset although we are also well aware of the danger of which Kubo’s mother has always warned him.
She has told him that he must come back to their home before night begins, and we see the reason as soon as the sunset is immediately followed by the moonrise. His grandfather is still looking for them because he needs his grandson’s right eye besides the other eye he took away in the past, and Kubo’s twin aunts are promptly dispatched to Kubo, who belatedly realizes the importance of his mother’s stories as confronting the danger approaching toward him.
Fortunately, he is saved by his mother’s sacrifice at the last minute, and then he finds himself transported to a cold, snowy place far away from his home. As he is confounded by this sudden change, he comes across Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron), who was initially a small mascot but is now turned into a talking entity with no-nonsense attitude. As the weather gets colder with approaching night, Monkey leads Kubo to a shelter which simultaneously reminded me of “Pinocchio” (1940) and “The Revenant” (2015), and Kubo comes to accept Monkey as his protector while spending the night along with her.
Following the direction from a small moving origami figure in the red shape of his father, Kubo and Monkey happen to encounter Beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), a giant bug figure who boasts that he once served at the place of Kubo’s father before he got cursed along with almost complete memory loss. Considering his silly pomps and swaggers, Beetle does not look that reliable to Monkey, but he eventually joins Kubo’s quest for three valuable things which are necessary for his upcoming confrontation with Moon King.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is based on stop-motion animation, and this aspect imbues the film with that distinctive 3D physical quality of stop-motion animation while it mostly looks as smooth as digital animation films thanks to advanced digital special effects. The director Travis Knight and his crew provide a terrific action sequence for each risky step Kubo and his two animal companions take along their adventurous journey, but there are also other notable moments which are as visually impressive as the action sequences in the film. While I was excited by the action sequence involved with a nice big surprise you will appreciate more via a video clip of its long, painstaking production process shown in the middle of the end credits, I enjoyed how one of the most enchanting things in the film is finally revealed with its full glory after an amusing indirect build-up process on the beach.
The voice cast of the film is uniformly excellent on the whole. While Art Parkinson is likable as a young hero who comes to discover his own inner strength through his journey, Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey complement each other well as having a fun with their contrasting characters. Rooney Mara is spooky and menacing as Kubo’s twin aunts who look like creepy Japanese dolls, and Ralph Fiennes has his own moment as his evil character reveals himself around the climax sequence which is more poignant than expected in its resolution.
With the modest but significant success of its first three stop-motion animation films “Coraline” (2009), “ParaNorman” (2012), and “The Boxtrolls” (2014), Laika Entertainment has been reaching to the prestigious rank belonging to Pixar Animation Studios, Studio Ghibli, and Aardman Animations during recent years, and “Kubo and the Two Strings” further solidifies this status as an animation film brimming with more style and personality than many other ones which came out in this year. I know it is a cliché to say it, but this is the best animation film of this year, and it certainly earns its last word which reminds us of why we should value good storytelling more. It simply shows and tells via its wonderful visual moments, and we get its points even when it does not explain much. And that’s how a good story works, you know.