Tuesday 13 September 2016

Movie Review: Kubo and the Two Strings by Travis Knight, Marc Haimes, Shannon Tindle and Chris Butler

I've read about Kubo and the Two Strings, many months ago, when it was in production. Then I promptly forgot all about it. So, when I started seeing posters for the film appearing in Cardiff, I had no idea about the film at all. In fact, to my embarrassment, I thought it was that new Disney movie about Polynesians (the posters looked 'exotic'), only I couldn't quite figure out how the Japanese aesthetic and monkeys would fit with the tale. Let's just say the film turned out to be a surprise.

The first few minutes of the film were a bewildering experience for someone expecting YA Disney. The stop motion animation is absolutely gorgeous, and the look and feel of the film is on a grand scale. So far, so Disney-compatible. However, the very start shows a young mother in a storm on a tiny boat, coming to harm, cracking her head on rocks on the bottom of the sea, and a little cloud of blood... with that single cracked-skull sound, that facial cut, that moment of utter despair, we're left in no doubt that this movie is set in a more perilous universe than any (recent) Disney film.

From the harrowing beginning, the film works up emotional intensity as we follow young Kubo caring for his obviously mentally disabled mother, while scraping by as a gifted storyteller performing for crowds in the market. The film never really lets go of its emotional resonance.

Which is not to say that the film is sad or glum. In fact, it is filled with joy and energy and swashbuckling grand adventures enough for three movies. There is laughter aplenty, and we get frequent reminder that Kubo, much as he might be on a quest in tragic circumstances, is still a little boy who can be playful, stubborn, sarcastic...

Kubo's quest into the Farlands to find three magical items to protect him against the evil Moon King is wondersome and epic in the way of the best fairy tales. At the same time, the Japanese aesthetic and influence flavours his adventures with a tinge of melancholy and cultural richness. None of which prevents the movie from enjoying moments of physical humour and whimsy.

I have no idea whether Kubo's story is based on a "real" fairytale, but it is so rich in beauty and narrative that if it isn't an old tale, it easily could be. It has that mythical, archetypal quality, while featuring complex, likeable (and in some cases, genuinely scary) characters.

There are plot twists, but grown ups will see them coming a mile away. There is a sense of real peril, and characters can be wounded and harmed: Kubo's story is probably not suitable for younger children. Visually, the film is eye candy so beautiful that I want to see it a second time in the cinema.

If you love Neil Gaiman's Sandman, or Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, or the novels of Pat Rothfuss, then I am confident you will love Kubo's story, too. It's as close to flawless as a movie can get - highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5

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