A little dark, and a little melancholy for kids, but for me, near perfection.
Kubo is a little boy with a magical, ancient Japanese banjo. Well, technically the banjo wasn’t ancient at the time – he lives in ancient Japan. And the banjo isn’t actually a banjo, it’s a shamisen. When he plays his magical shamisen, his origami comes to life and helps him tell awesome stories about warriors and samurai. He’s busking, essentially, and the captivated crowd rewards him with a few coins – a good thing because he provides for his sick mother, who lives outside the village in a cave. When she’s not in a trance, she’s adamant that Kubo always return before sundown. It was surprisingly sound advice from the mentally ill because THE ONE TIME he doesn’t, hell breaks loose. Ancient Japanese hell.
Turns out, Kubo’s grandfather is some sort of Moon God. Grandfather has already “stolen” one of Kubo’s eyes and wants to get his hands on the other – in blindness, his grandson can join him in immortality, ruling the sky. He sends his 2 creepy daughters to do the dirty work while his 3rd daughter, Kubo’s mom, struggles to protect him with what little magic she has left.
The movie is a grand adventure with more beauty in any random 30 seconds than The Secret Life of Pets has in its entire running time. As usual with Laika productions (they brought you Coraline), there are darker feelings at play, a sometimes ominous and foreboding tone unusual in a children’s movie, and yet the kids in the audience seemed to tolerate it better than they did Pete’s Dragon. It’s a glorious act of story-telling that feels like something genuinely passed down for generations. Every time Kubo picks up his shamisen, be prepared for some of the loveliest music you’ll hear at the movies. It sweeps you up into the magic of his origami, and the whole thing feels alive and vibrant, steeped in a culture filled with divine tradition.
Kubo And The Two Strings is surprisingly well-balanced tonally, able to incorporate gags meant just for kids between bouts of horror, humour, and yes, tragedy. It’s quite brave, when you think of it. Suicide Squad pulled back on the Joker’s villainy, and Ben-Hur rewrote some of its savagery. This, a meticulously animated piece of art, has the backbone to trust children with some rather heavy themes. And it does it while also being the most visually arresting thing I’ve seen at the movies this year. It’s a spectacle, and a technical triumph. Having no wordly idea how they pulled some scenes off just adds to the magic. Laika is no stranger to Oscar nominations for animation, and is sure to earn another, but this movie demolishes even their own high bar. Laika doesn’t have the cachet of Pixar so politically, beating Finding Dory will be difficult. But the proof is on the big screen: it is undoubtedly the better film.