„Kubo and the Two Strings” is a film of intense, sophisticated beauty. I think I will probably be using the word „beauty” and its derivatives quite a lot in this review: I can hardly think of more fitting descriptors.
Judging on visual artistry alone, „Kubo” is the movie of the year, and I spent a good chunk of its running time simply staring mouth agape at the many wonders on display. Ridiculously skilful stop-motion puppetry and polished CGI blend together to create a stunning universe of paper and snow and autumn leaves and moonlight, and unexpected wings, and sharp weapons glimmering in the dark, and villains with cold unmoving faces and/or fiery eyes. The backgrounds are exquisite, the character designs are inventive, the animation is graceful. It’s all quite magical, and did I mention full of beauty?
As for the narrative that gives life to this gorgeous world, your mileage may vary. Kubo’s creators at Laika have always struggled a bit with developing scripts to match the quality of their visuals. They tend to gravitate towards dark, melancholy stories, but the demands of an animation market oversaturated with upbeat comedies make them second-guess themselves, perhaps, in matters of finding a balance between darkness and levity.
„Kubo” is, to me, the Laika film that comes closest to the right recipe, although it’s still not quite there yet, with the second half slipping a bit too much into sentimentalism (and occasionally falling into plot holes). Many conversations go on for way too long, as if the writers were not quite sure whether it’s polite to interrupt the characters. And a lot of the story’s effectiveness also depends on whether you subscribe to the „Star Trek” philosophy of admiring the human condition to the point where you think of it as something a superior entity would ever choose willingly (I personally don’t).
In any case, regardless of their own skill in the matter, it’s clear that the writers of „Kubo” think very highly of the art of storytelling. The titular character is a storyteller on a different kind of heroic journey: his strongest weapons are his voice and his music, rather than swords and punches. And a central concept to „Kubo” is the idea that humans are stories themselves, puzzles of their own memories and the memories of others- and, of course, stories can sometimes be changed and re-written.
In the end, „Kubo and the Two Strings” is an animated film unlike any other you’re going to see at the mall until the next Laika release. It follows nobody, it probably won’t have any imitators, either, and it’s a must-see.
P.S. Whose brilliant idea was it, though, to have an all-white main voice cast for a film set in Japan?