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Kubo and the Two Strings Movie Review

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) movie poster Kubo and the Two Strings

Theatrical Release: August 19, 2016 / Running Time: 101 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Travis Knight / Writers: Marc Haimes (story & screenplay); Chris Butler (screenplay); Shannon Tiddle (story)

Voice Cast: Charlize Theron (Monkey), Art Parkinson (Kubo), Ralph Fiennes (Moon King), George Takei (Hosato), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Hashi), Brenda Vaccaro (Kameyo), Rooney Mara (The Sisters), Matthew McConaughey (Beetle), Meyrick Murphy (Mari), Minae Noji (Minae), Alpha Takahashi (Aiko), Laura Miro (Miho), Ken Takemoto (Ken)

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Animated films are as prevalent today as they have ever been. In many ways, they're also more homogenous than they've ever been. With few exceptions, one studio's CGI resembles another's and though creativity is rewarded, more often than not the studios give us PG-rated family comedies of talking anthropomorphic animals on adventures. Laika, the studio that was launched with 2009's Coraline, stands out from the others by using stop motion animation, a medium long associated with holiday television specials and movie monster effects.
Stop motion has had a bit of renaissance in recent years with inventive features from visionaries like Wes Anderson (Fantastic Mr. Fox), Tim Burton (Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie), and Charlie Kaufman (Anomalisa), as well as the usually witty films of the UK's Aardman Animations. But even the most commercially successful of stop-motion efforts pose no serious challenge to the increasingly awe-inspiring box office numbers of warmly-received CGI 'toons.

Still, Laika has a strong critical track record and a distinct look that differs from more commonplace CG designs. The studio also has demonstrated a penchant for original storytelling, a trend that continues with Kubo and the Two Strings, a complex tale you haven't heard before. At the film's start, Kubo (Art Parkinson), a brave young Japanese boy with one eye warns you to get your blinking out of the way and pay full attention to his story. These are the same expressions the boy uses when telling crowd-captivating stories in a market with origami figures he summons to life by playing a three-stringed samisen.

Kubo goes on a hero's journey with Monkey and Beetle in "Kubo and the Two Strings."

Kubo's missing left eye was taken by his evil grandfather and his two nasty aunts (voiced by Rooney Mara) are determined to get the other one from him. But with some guidance from his mother (Charlize Theron), Kubo embarks on an adventure to obtain three pieces of armor he'll need: the sword unbreakable, the breastplate impenetrable, and the helmet invulnerable. Joining Kubo on this mission are Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), an man-sized insect and former samurai who knew and respected Kubo's father and a Monkey (also Theron) who springs to life from a charm he's carried with him all his life.

The three see their understanding and appreciation for one another deepen as they search for those pieces of armor and wind up battling a giant skeleton and in a full-sized origami boat conceived by Kubo and learning to fish.

Yes, two of the three leads of Kubo are talking animals. And there is plenty of CGI in the film that gives it versatility and breadth that stop motion alone cannot. Despite that, Kubo bears little resemblance to the generic CGI family comedy that has been in abundance for the past ten years. It's dramatic. It's soulful. It doesn't pander. It even embraces an Eastern culture, at least until the point where it might lose the marketability of its movie star voice cast. (At least George Takei fills a supporting role and gets to utter his signature "Oh my.")

Beetle teaches Kubo how to fish with a bow and arrow aboard the Origami ship the boy created.

We never really uncover the significance of the title, but that is of minor concern on a film that gets you to invest emotionally in a Matthew McConaughey beetle and Charlize Theron monkey who butt heads comically throughout.

Travis Knight, a lead animator on Laika's Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls,
makes his directorial debut here on the first script by Marc Haimes and the second by ParaNorman's Chris Butler. Aesthetically pleasing and agreeably textured, there's enough to Kubo to assume it is based on some pre-existing source material, but that assumption is not accurate.

As of now, Kubo seems likely to extend Laika's perfect three-for-three streak of drawing nominations for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. There are still four months of movies left to see and two acclaimed blockbusters that are likely to remain frontrunners ahead of it. But Kubo resonates in a way that many other mainstream animated features do not and that is significant.

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Laika: Coraline | Stop Motion: Anomalisa Fantastic Mr. Fox Frankenweenie

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Reviewed August 19, 2016.

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