In the hierarchy of this summer’s animated films, it should be pretty obvious where Kubo and the Two Strings stands. Not with bottom feeders like The Secret Life of Pets, a movie desperately banking on legacy for good returns. And not even with Pixar’s Finding Dory, a sequel that definitely didn’t disappoint. No: Kubo gets a class of its own. It could be a silent and still deserve to handily walk away with the Oscar. In a time when CGI has basically become synonymous with animation, this stop-motion gem delivers the most visually sumptuous, awe-inspiring, and beautiful experience I’ve seen of its kind in a very, very long time.
Kubo takes us to a mythical version of Japan to tell the story of Kubo (Art Parkinson), a young, one-eyed boy who makes a living recounting fantastical tales with origami and his two-stringed shamisen. His life is peaceful, happy, and free, barring the fact that his mother (Charlize Theron), a melancholic, grieving widow, strictly forbids him from staying out after sunset. Like all protagonists, Kubo eventually finds a good reason to ignore his mother’s advice – and instantly regrets it. It turns out Kubo has a cosmic lineage; his grandfather (Ralph Fiennes) is the god of the Moon. Years ago, his mother betrayed her divine family, and her father and two sisters (Rooney Mara x2) have been ruthlessly hunting for her ever since. Forget Princess Fiona and her ogre troubles; just seconds after staying out too late, Kubo is blown away from his mother and expelled to the middle of an uninhabited wasteland. To get everything back, he has seek the one weapon that’ll give him a sliver of hope for defeating his granddaddy: a golden suit of armor worn by his samurai father.
Unless it’s something like Persepolis or Waltz with Bashir, most animated films automatically come with an Achilles heel: they’re fantasy. Their stories can push the bounds of romance, sci-fi and action, but they’re doomed to forever remain cartoons in their own make-believe world. (Thus why they’ve never had a chance of winning Best Picture.) Kubo doesn’t break this real-imaginary barrier, but it comes close enough to start seriously fogging up the glass. Everything in Kubo’s mystical but dangerous world has a stunningly tangible physicality. Even the greatest of Pixar movies can claim only a few memorable images, but the priceless shots here just keep coming: a giant wave in the far sea bearing down on a tiny rowboat; a pair of glowing skeleton eyes emerging from the darkness; an underwater garden of hypnotizing eyes; a ship forming itself from thousands of tiny red leaves…even without a story behind them, the mesmerizing beauty of these images alone would be enough to leave you floored. Their astonishingly realistic detail and precision give Kubo’s epic quest a legendary visual sweep words can only palely emulate. You won’t believe you’ve been watching mere fiction until well after the curtain call.
As if amazing visuals weren’t enough, Kubo also has a good story to back it up. It’s not flawless; some of the action scenes, including the climax, feel a little rushed, the archvillain is a bit cliché, and the movie lacks the depth we get from something like Inside Out or WALL-E. But not great is still very good. The plot, with twists Lion King-esque in their willingness to go dark and an ending that avoids being implausibly mushy, keeps you engaged and believing. The characters, even the obligatory comic foil, all have something to recommend them, particularly Kubo’s two divine aunts, whose icy bearing will easily creep you out. And the voices, while not on the level of a Dory or Genie, do a fine job personifying their roles. Besides Mara, Parkinson, the boy forced into a life-changing journey, and Theron, his strict but loving mother, both deserve special salutes.
Prepare yourself for a movie that will truly leave you breathless. Its goal is just like Kubo’s every time he walks into the marketplace with his shamisen: tell a story, and tell it well. What unfolds holds gripping adventure, heart-stopping thriller, touching coming-of-age, and visuals that legitimately deserve to be called awesome. It strips away the extraneous diversions so common in animation and strikes instead for pure, riveting entertainment. For 100 glorious minutes, you’ll feel as if your well-being inextricably depends on whether Kubo slays that monster or survives that precipitous fall into the earth. Isn’t that kind of magic just what we go to the movies for?
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Starring: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei
Running Time: 101 minutes
Produced by: Travis Knight, Arianne Sutner
Directed by: Travis Knight
Written by: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler