Kubo and the Two Strings is Laika’s best film to date. It eschews the horror theme of their previous films for more of a fairy tale and it completely enchanting. Kubo doesn’t do anything particularly special with the broad strokes; a young boy goes on a quest, but it combines absolutely jaw-droppingly beautiful animation with some rather heartfelt moments of love and loss. It is easily the best animated film of the year and one of the best movies of the summer.
The movie starts with young one-eyed Kubo caring for his near catatonic mother and putting on a show in the small town where he lives that combines origami with music and magic. He tells a story of a brave samurai who must retrieve three treasures but he always stops before the ending in order to get back home before nightfall. His mother has a few moments of lucidity as the moon first comes out, telling Kubo stories of his heroic samurai father before drifting back into nothingness. Her admonishments to avoid being out at night are quickly discarded, bringing his aunts along to try to steal his other eye. That sets in motion Kubo’s own quest aided only by a monkey, an origami samurai and a beetle man.
Kubo’s quest to retrieve a magical sword, armor and helmet lead him through the movies astonishing set pieces. They fight a giant skeleton with numerous swords protruding from its skull and a horde of hypnotic submarine eyeballs; all while being hounded by his unearthly witch aunts. Along the way, Kubo learns more about his family and what happened to parents. Eventually, Kubo is forced to confront his eye stealing grandfather, the Moon King. Each location and encounter is amazing. Laika has really outdone themselves this time, with the sweeping scope of some of the epic fights.
The story, the emotional details of which are being purposefully omitted, is carried by a strong voice cast. Charlize Theron voices Monkey, whose stern no-nonsense outlook keeps the ragtag group on task. On the opposite side is Matthew McConaughey as Beetle, who is a charmingly forgetful goofball that adds some fun to the serious proceedings. Art Parkinson plays Kubo with a convincing mix of enthusiasm and longing. However, if there is one place the movie falters, it is in the forced humor of some the Beetle and Monkey scenes. They work from a character standpoint, but the humor falls woefully flat. That is no fault of the voice actors, merely a failing in the dialogue. The rest of the cast, from Ralph Fiennes to George Takei, does good work as well.
What Laika has done in animating this is breathtaking. It is impossible to overstate how good this movie looks. Not that their previous efforts, employing the same eerie stop-motion techniques, were lacking but Kubo and the Two Strings scales things up to epic heights. The most impressive scene is likely the sword fight between one of the Aunts and Monkey on a ship made of fallen leaves as it breaks apart in a rain storm. Or maybe it is the fight against the giant, fire-eyed skeleton. Or maybe the climactic show down. Just as effective are the smaller moments, like Kubo brushing his inert mother’s hair out of her eyes.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a delight in every way. It looks great and all of the emotional moments hit. I have complained repeatedly about how disappointing the movies this summer have been but at least the season is going out on a high note.