“Monkey, do you ever say anything encouraging?” asks Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson). “I encourage you not to die,” replies Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) while the two new friends are on a quest together in the animated film, Kubo and the Two Strings.
Living a quiet, peaceful life with his mother just outside a small Japanese shoreside village, the young boy Kubo makes a living entertaining the villagers with creative stories of a Samurai warrior fighting against the evil Moon King. Kubo always returns back home to his mother before sundown, just as she has instructed him to do. They always finish the day having dinner together, with Kubo listening to his mom recall stories about his father, a Samurai who gave his life so that Kubo and his mother could live.
One day Kubo stays out too long because he wants to experience the celebration the village is throwing to honor their lost loved ones. The sun sets and to Kubo’s horror two spirit sisters appear eerily calling his name while chasing him. Kubo tries to run home but he’s not fast enough and the two spirit sisters are almost upon him when his mother appears and uses her magic to transport Kubo away quickly while she distracts the spirits.
Kubo is woken up by a talking monkey (named Monkey) who tells him the village has been destroyed and that his mother used her last bit of magic to save him. Once they find shelter, Monkey tells Kubo the stories his mother told him, and the stories he’s been telling to the villagers, are all true. Kubo’s family is strong with magic and a powerful, evil spirit from his parent’s past has sent the sisters to settle an old vendetta. Kubo’s only hope to survive is to find his father’s magical suit and indestructible sword so he can stop the ancient evil.
Visually breathtaking, Kubo and the Two Strings is an uneven, animated adventure with strong performances by its voice talents. Charlize Theron is great at bringing the overprotective and nagging Monkey to life, completely capturing the personality of a caring, bossy, and no-nonsense mentor. Art Parkinson is solid as the voice of Kubo, the imaginative, good-hearted and loving boy who’s about to discover the surprising truth about his parents, the evil hunting him, and himself.
Matthew McConaughey provides the much-needed comic relief as the memory-robbed Beetle who can only recall that he was once a Samurai and followed Kubo’s father. His willingness to join the quest and always put himself in harm’s way for both Kubo and Monkey make him the most likeable character in the film. Rooney Mara gives a truly effective performance as the eerie voice of the two spirit sisters. In fact, she’s so effective that the scenes late in the film of the sisters hunting Kubo and doing battle with his friends are too scary and intense for very young viewers. Most likely eight and above should be able to handle it.
The film’s stop-motion animation is truly stunning with its use of vivid colors, dark and stormy seas, and the vibrant, bright scope of Kubo’s village. Kubo and the Two Strings is a visual delight even while its tone is all over the place. Early in the film, the scenes shift quickly from peaceful to suddenly creepy and intense to violent battle only to cut quickly to a quiet scene, and this happens more than once and it’s jarring. The animated family movie also fails to ever establish a solid rhythm and pacing to its story.
Fortunately, even with its pacing and tonal issues Kubo and the Two Strings is saved by its originality and interesting characters. The film is so visually striking that if you’re interested in checking it out, don’t wait for the DVD. This LAIKA/Focus Features production should be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate its craftsmanship.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril
Running Time: 101 minutes
Directed By: Travis Knight
Release Date: August 19, 2016