Now THIS is how you make a movie for kids (and the young at heart).
Here is a movie that treats its audience with respect. Where a lot of modern kids movies give the viewer loads of visceral, loud imagery and sound, “Kubo And The Two Strings” is a movie that isn’t afraid to take its time, or even to let its story elements lapse. Grandiose yet humanistic, this is a movie that represents some of the best that animation can offer…even with creative decisions that feels like it too has given in to some of the worst elements of the current animation industry.
Yes, this movie is gorgeous. The animation/cinematography team at Laika (in this case including Frank Passingham) gives everything a believable look and feel while being unafraid of having some style. Travis Knight proves himself to be quite a visual stylist and storyteller. Plus, the story by Shannon Tindle and Marc Haimes, fleshed out with the screenwriting efforts of Haimes and Chris Butler, provides a familiar tale in a world that (for U.S. animation at least) is unexplored: feudal Japan, which is full of myths, monsters, demons and cultural landmarks. It has big ideas and scenes that wouldn’t feel out of place in an old Hollywood epic, strung together by an aching intimacy and anxiety, centering on the titular young hero (English voice acting by Art Parkingson) who cares for a mother fleeing an awful family feud that could very well end their lives. So, yeah, this movie may have monsters, peril and danger, but the true enemy is a broken family. Talk about harsh.
But with such harsh themes (which ends on a subtle, intellectually heavy take that I won’t spoil), the movie never exactly rises above the level of delicate and pretty. Sure, there are a few action sequences, but the movie isn’t particularly gruesome or gross. That can be a sign of cowardice in a lesser animated movie, especially one that, for all of its delving into Japanese folklore, has its main characters (at least in the English voice acting) voiced by famous white folks and its side characters voiced by lesser known Japanese people (no, really). But here, the light touch has a purpose.
The movie’s opening sequences featuring Kubo and his mother are akin to seeing stills of ordinary life in Japan (if, well, if ordinary life was affected by a feud involving a mystical king and his offspring), with the magic shown without overpowering the proceedings. Sure the movie runs on dream logic, what with Kubo suddenly using his abilities to help get himself out of (and into) various situations, but the movie is so tied to the perspective and emotional yearning of its main character that whatever plot issues would usually crop up do not matter in this instance. It’s a kids movie because its protagonist is a kid, not because the moviemakers thought they were making a movie FOR kids, a nuance a lot of moviemakers miss to the peril of making, “Garbage Pail Kids” and the live action, “The Cat In The Hat” adaptation. This all leads to a scene by the very end that could test one’s suspension of disbelief…until they realize how much emotional sense it makes. Not every animated feature is as intricate in plot detail as, “Ghost In The Shell”, or as married to the idea of, “Save The Cat” style plotting as the movies of Dreamworks/Pixar, but here that is ok. For it is with feeling that we truly begin to grapple with the things that trouble us.
However, it’s a shame that the movie (again, the English-voiced cut of this movie. The distributors of this will probably dub this thing with a cast of respectable Japanese voice actors and everything will be sort of right again) has to give in to the idea that to sell it has to have known celebrities do the work. Art Parkinson does a fine job voicing Kubo, and Charlize Theron proves that her awesomeness as Imperator Furiosa (along with her career beforehand) is not a fluke, but…why Matthew McConaughey as the Beetle Samurai? Why Ralph Fiennes as The Moon King? And why Rooney Mara as The Sisters sent by The Moon King to get Kubo and his mother? Yeah, they all do a fine job, and Matthew McConaughey in particular made the audience I saw this movie with chuckle a lot, but I can’t help but pine for times when actual voice actors were cast to do this stuff, not just people who were already famous in front of a camera. Yeah, fine, Mark Hamil first won the world’s heart as Luke Skywalker, but at least he had actual voice acting talent and skills before he was hired to play The Greatest Version Of The Joker Of All Time. Plus, there are plenty of voice actors working today who would kill to be in a Hollywood animated feature film alongside pop stars and other famous people, so why not give them a chance?
Other than that, this is a movie you have to see. It will wow you, maybe even get you a little teary-eyed (yeah, I’m a grown person crying at kids movies. What of it?). Hey, think of it this way: vote with your money and time on projects like this, maybe we’ll get more animated feature movies that actually know how to deal with complex, mature themes in the future…as opposed to just putting on a veneer of maturity/vulgarity and then riding that veneer into the ground for an hour and a half. No, I am not mentioning that movie by name…I’m still scarred by it.
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