Movie Review: ‘KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS’ will pluck every one of your heartstrings

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS | 101 min | PG
Director: Travis Knight
Cast: Art ParkinsonCharlize TheronMatthew McConaugheyRooney Mara and Ralph Fiennes 

This year’s program of summer cinema has hardly risen above a cynical feeding tube of explosions, steeped in a complete lack of relatable characters or meaningful obstacles.

In stark contrast are the soaring melodies of KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS. This film stands as a great piece of art on its own, but it is a refreshing breeze in the late summer, ushering in the promise of better films to come through a heartening journey brimming with mystery, culture and terror.

In the wasteland of today’s arts and entertainment medium, this stop-motion feature set in Japan finds itself in the calm, albeit convivial world of a young boy named Kubo (voiced by GAME OF THRONES’ Art Parkinson), who has sported an eye patch since infancy and voices magical stories for anyone who is willing to stay awhile and listen. He does so by playing a three-stringed instrument called a shamisen, through which he magically animates pieces of paper into a living origami puppet show.

One day Kubo ignites a long-dormant vendetta when he accidentally summons a spirit from his past. The spirit, known as Raiden the Moon King (the ever-menacing Ralph Fiennes), offers Kubo eternal life in exchange for his remaining eye. But what story would this be if Kubo forked it over?

Thus sparks an adventure to discover the fate of his parents and to retrieve three items that will become key in defeating the growing threat coming his way.

Assisting him on his quest is a no-monkey-business Japanese macaque (voiced to great effect by Charlize Theron) and a wisecracking samurai beetle (a charming Matthew McConaughey).

Matthew McConaughey, Art Parkinson and Charlize Theron voiced the characters in KUBO. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

Matthew McConaughey, Art Parkinson and Charlize Theron voiced the characters in KUBO. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

With KUBO and some of his past visions (PARANORMAN and THE BOXTROLLS), filmmaker Travis Knight sometimes seems less of an animator and director, and more a deft curator of songs with a heart and mind of their own. His use of stop-motion and computer-generated images effortlessly portray the mood and atmosphere of the story told on screen. Every detail, whether it’s the feathery fur of the snow monkey or the jaw-dropping water sequences, is so tangibly rich that you can almost reach out and touch it.

However, it’s not just the visuals that make KUBO such a creative stroke of genius. Laika’s animators uses their dazzling visuals as a mere key to highlight their ability to tell compelling stories.

On the surface, the film functions as a hero’s journey, but underneath there is an emotionally rich tale of memories, loss and grief. This is what elevates its material beyond the safe and crowd-pleasing borders set by Pixar’s FINDING DORY earlier this summer. FINDING DORY undoubtedly knows how to bring the waterworks, but Kubo warrants your tears by dealing with similar themes and diving deeper into the sea of emotions.

Providing well-assigned and memorable voice work, the stars anchor the film further to solidify its stunning craftsmanship. It’s apparent the animators and filmmakers put much thought into each character, who should portray them and what characteristics they should possess.

One problem that may impede KUBO, especially for younger children, is how dark and terrifying it can be. In a throwback to the darker stories of decades past, the subject material is evidently more mature than your average animated feature, but that comes with knowing Laika’s producing works and other stop-motion films. The evil Sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara), who work under the malicious thumb of the Moon King, almost feel plucked out of Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. Parents, be cautious about bringing the littler ones.

KUBO continues to show how new things are possible within what seems to be a fading art form. With animation, primarily Pixar, becoming more and more photo-realistic with each new addition, it’s invigorating to witness something more whimsically imaginative.

Grade: B+

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS opens nationwide on Friday.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.

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