Thursday, 25 August 2016

Kubo & The Two Strings

(PG) ★★★★½

Director: Travis Knight.

Cast: (voices of) Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes.

They were gonna call it Bug, Boy & Monkey
but it sounded like a '70s folk band.
(I may have made this up)

PEOPLE talk about Pixar’s impressive strike rate and how the Pixar name is a signifier of quality – which is all totally true – but we also need to be talking about Laika in the same way.

Laika is the company behind the stop-motion gems Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. They may not have set the box office alight like say Finding Dory, Toy Story 3 or Inside Out, but each is a magnificent film, not just technically but also in terms of their all-ages appeal, intelligent themes, and depth of storytelling.

However Laika’s latest may well be its best yet, which is saying something. Kubo & The Two Strings ticks all of the same boxes and continues the animation house’s winning streak, but also takes it to new heights with its visual splendour and unique ideas.

The film plays like an old Japanese folk tale, but is in fact an original story – very original. In fact, describing the plot will make people think you’re crazy or just saying random words.

It is the story of a young one-eyed boy named Kubo, who uses a stringed instrument called a shamisen to perform origami magic and is forced to go on an adventure with a talking monkey and a samurai who has been turned into a beetle. Their quest is to find some enchanted armour that could save Kubo from his evil aunts and grandfather.

See? That reads like the scribblings of a crazy person or, at best, a very interesting child.

At a basic level, it’s actually a formulaic hero’s journey and at times feels like a twisted take on The Wizard Of Oz, but there is a healthy dose of imagination at play here that keeps it from going stale. Even the bits that feel predictable fail to get in the way of the giddy pleasure derived from its unexpected qualities, which are many.

The Japanese setting (although the American accents are jarring at first) and its wildly unique narrative and characters combine to make Kubo & The Two Strings feel new and fresh, but there is much more to the film than just that. The look of it is out-of-this-world – it’s a stunning blend of stop-motion and CG animation, dressed up with some beautiful production design. Each of Laika’s films have been endowed with a wondrous visual style all their own, but Kubo’s Asian-influenced eye-candy takes the cake. The remarkable settings, striking characters, awesome fight sequences and creepy villains are all top notch (although the final big boss is a bit of a disappointment compared to what precedes it).

Parkinson and McConaughey are the stars of the show, with the latter offering some welcome comic touches, but it takes a little while to get used to Theron’s performance. Eventually the film hits its stride and the voice casting makes a lot of sense.

The themes of stories and memories, particularly how they relate to death, and the mix of pain and beauty that life holds, coupled with some scary-looking baddies, mean Kubo earns its PG rating, but for hardier youngsters (and grown-ups who like to encourage their inner child) it’s a rewarding experience that combines laughter and excitement with some intriguing depths and touches of darkness.

The one-word descriptor for Kubo & The Two Strings is “impressive”. It’s awkward moments are fleeting and vanish amid the stunning visuals and a story that feels remarkably new and old at the same time.

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