Friday, August 26, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings Review

Best genre of 2016? Animated feature films. Case in point: Kubo.

2016 has been a pretty disappointing year for pretty much every genre in Hollywood. I genuinely feel like 2016 will be a year remembered for poorly conceived movies and when people finally said enough was enough for poor reboots and remakes. Regardless of whether or not you enjoyed any reboots or remakes this year, you have to admit that most of the box office results for big blockbusters movies have been underwhelming to say the least. Ghostbusters was a failure, no one gave a damn about Ben-Hur, and Suicide Squad needed at least $800 million to break even at best. The industry has become so bloated that it's about to just collapse in on itself due to poor planning and misguided ambition.

After about 8 months, I can now safely confirm that two genres are having a particularly strong year with fantastic genre films in each category; horror and animation. For horror fans, we've had 10 Cloverfield Lane, Lights Out, The Witch, The Conjuring 2, Don't Breathe, and the upcoming sure to be a hit Blair Witch, most of which I've reviewed and can give solid recommendations to all of them. Animated films had a just as good turn out with movies like Zootopia, The Secret Life of Pets, Sausage Party, and now Kubo and the Two Strings, which may just be the best of the bunch. Kubo is a stellar movie with unheard of animation, a compelling story, and characters that you can relate to and enjoy. In short, it's everything that an animated movie should be.

Our story revolves around Kubo, a young boy with one eye that is a young shamisen player in Japan. By day, he goes into town and tells stories to the town people with his music and his origami. Origami, mind you, that he can control with magic and use to create elaborate spectacles to impress the villagers. By night, he takes care of his mother, who looks after him and protects him from the Moon King, the man who stole Kubo's eye. One night, Kubo stays out after dark while praying to his dead father, and the Moon King finds Kubo and sends his servants to hunt him down. Kubo's mother tells him to run away and collect three magical pieces of armor that can defeat the Moon King, and Kubo does so. Along the way, he encounters a monkey that his mother sent to look after him, and a beetle that was once a disciple of his father, who was once a great swordsman, Together these three search for the armor while dealing with the forces of the Moon King.

On paper, the story sounds interesting enough, but the detail is where the plot truly shines. The relationship that Kubo develops between his companions and the Moon King is interesting, and not a scene goes by without elaborating on the premise in some new way. The original concept is subverted, enhanced, and expanded upon where by the time we reach the end of the movie, several major twists have happened that makes Kubo's journey all the more special. Some twists you can see coming a mile away, while one in particular took me by surprise completely regarding the beetle.

What's even more impressive about the movie is just how much heart and passion is on display in every scene. Complex ideas and themes like the inevitability and acceptance of death, as well as familial bonds are beautifully represented here and culminate in a climax that has pure, unadulterated balls. I mean it too. The amount of risks that the ending takes is impressive enough, but by giving Kubo an ending like the one here is powerful in that it asks what a happy ending really is? If the hero wins, is that a happy ending, or is there more to it than that? I have to love Kubo just for how strong of an ending it has.

The only thing that's stronger than the story is the animation, and my God is it jaw dropping. The entire movie is done completely in stop motion, and the attention to detail is practically unheard of here. Every character is so expressive and fluid that most people believe that Kubo HAD to have some CGI thrown in to make everything so smooth. Nope, it's all pure stop motion animation.

The production company behind Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika, is well known for their stop motion work, but it's never looked as good as it does now. Coraline was great, as was Paranorman (we don't talk about The Boxtrolls), but Laika took it to a whole new level. There's a gigantic stop motion battle between a giant skeleton that has been on record as being the largest stop motion puppet ever put to film, and the fight scene is a spectacle because of that. Even then, the fighting between the smaller characters, like the monkey and the Moon King's servants, are just a beautiful to watch for how fast and intense that combat is.

Make no mistake, Kubo is a movie that adults will enjoy immensely, probably even more so than some kids might. That may be my one gripe wit Kubo, but it's a minor one at that. The movie is aimed mostly at adults to enjoy, and while children can certainly watch this movie without any problems, there are certainly a few too many slow moments for modern children to enjoy. Keep in mind the phrase I used is "modern children". Children who grew up with kids movies being more in line with Angry Birds and Frozen than Secret of Nihm and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It's not impossible for children to follow along with what's being shown here, but any child going into this movie expecting a fast paced adventure movie with purely evil antagonists is going to be sorely disappointed.

Still, it's hard for me to even say that's a criticism, but that was just the general feel from what I saw in the audience. In my theater, parent's were riveted by what they were watching, gasping at story elements and some of the fight scenes, while children were asking them what was happening and why this character did this or that. It just goes to show that sometimes a kid's movie can be a bit too adult for kids, but still be aimed at them. This is a movie that earns its PG rating in the same way that Hunchback had it's PG rating because there was a song about damning a woman to Hell id she wouldn't fall in love with him.

The voice acting is spot on as well, featuring a lot of high talent actors playing very compelling roles. Art Parkinson does a solid job as Kubo, but the real show stealer is Chalize Theron as the monkey, who is serious, yet caring to Kubo and his needs. I was a bit thrown off when Matthew McConaughey was cast as the beetle, and even some of his lines grate at me from time to time, but the heroes do a damned good job at bouncing off of each other and having a great repore with one another.

I know some people are mad that for a movie that's heavily influenced in Japanese culture, the only Japanese actor to appear in George Takei, who does a damned good job for what little he's in. I can understand that idea that the cast is "white washed", but when two of your characters are anthropomorphic animals, I don't think the white washing is as big of an issue as some are making it out to be. Then again, people have a funny habit of being selectively enraged when a movie does this kind of white washing. No one seemed to be mad when Po from Kung Fu Panda was voiced by Jack Black, and no one was mad when the majority of the cast from The Jungle Book was voiced by now Indian actors even though it was set in India. I'm just saying that if you're going to be mad about a movie casting white, non Japanese actors as main characters, then at least be fair in pointing out other instances of unfair casting instead of glossing over them just to strengthen your own point.

All of that aside, I loved Kubo and the Two Strings. It's an outstanding movie that does everything an animated movie should do. It's engaging, it takes risks, it's a visual marvel, and it has an ending that really makes you think. By all means, go see Kubo. Absolutely nothing of value is coming out in September (maybe Blair Witch and Magnificent Seven?), so take your time to go see Kubo. NOW.


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