Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

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This is my 300th review. I usually reserve this kind of milestone for a film that has made a big impact on me and is responsible for me becoming the film lover that I am. I juggled several possibilities, some of which I saw almost a decade ago. However, I rather decided to take a fresh approach – to review a film that I only just saw recently, but one I think is an utter masterpiece, and one that deserves every bit of acclaim it has received. That film is Kubo and the Two Strings, a film I could easily consider as being one of the greatest animated films of all time, and a film that is unlike anything achieved in animation prior to this, and represents a massive step forward in the incredible progression of what animation can do.

I don’t hate Pixar or Disney in any way, but as I have said on so many occasions, they are resting too much on their laurels, and depend on the fact that people will come and see their films, regardless of the quality. Luckily, the films aren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but I have been somewhat disappointed of late – Finding Dory was a lovely sequel, and Zootopia was a brilliant social commentary, but neither of them were animation achievements, and they were both pretty unoriginal and unremarkable, and I can easily see the studios making films of this quality, with these just simply joining in with the rest of the wonderful Disney and Pixar movies, but not standing out at all. This is where Laika comes in – the independent animation studio that previously made three very good stop-motion animated films – Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, all of which slipped relatively under the radar. However, Kubo and the Two Strings is their latest offering, and it is far better than those films combined, and it is destined to become a classic of animation, mainly because of how utterly brilliant it is, and how it is one of the most beautiful films of the year, and perhaps of the decade.

Seemingly influenced by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli (but who in animation these days isn’t influenced by Hayao Miyazaki?), Kubo and the Two Strings takes place in Ancient Japan, and centres on the titular Kubo, a young boy who finds his calling in telling stories with the help of his magical shamisen, which brings the origami to life. After an attack by his mother’s evil sisters, Kubo is forced to fight for his life. His mother dies, and he is accompanied on his journey by a talking monkey, who serves as his guide and mentor, and they encounter another warrior, a beetle-man hybrid, that claims to be the student of Kubo’s late father. Together, the trio go in search of Kubo’s father’s armor, which Kubo will use to defeat his grandfather, The Moon King. This is a story that tells a non-stereotypical story of Japanese culture and traditions, and despite being made by Americans, it handles the culture of Ancient Japan with remarkable class and restraint, keeping it free from any hackneyed portrayal of the nation, which is one reason why I thought Kubo and the Two Strings is a masterpiece, because it is such an original take on Japan. It may very well be the most accurate Western representation of Japan in years.

Kubo and the Two Strings boasts a tremendous cast, and unlike many mainstream animated films, this film has some A-list talent, but rather keeps the ensemble small and meaningful – there are only a small handful of characters in this film. The lead role of Kubo is played by Art Parkinson, a young breakout star of Game of Thrones. There isn’t much to say about Parkinson’s performance, but he does make the best of the character. Monkey is voiced by Charlize Theron, who I felt was not a suitable fit for the character – she didn’t fit the mould of a motherly character, and her voice often felt very harsh and sharp at times. However, it wasn’t a complete travesty, and it is wonderful to see her do some interesting projects. Matthew McConaughey is still on a roll, and for an actor who has such an oft-parodied voice, it is surprising that this is his first animated film role (I am still waiting for Al Pacino to make his voice-acting debut). Ralph Fiennes has a smaller but substantial role as one of the main antagonists. I know I sometimes blindly praise actors, but Fiennes was really good here, inhabiting the mystical quality, as well as the deep villainy of The Moon King. Rooney Mara is suitably terrifying in dual roles of The Sisters, who are perhaps the scariest characters of the year. The cast is solid and do what they do well, and I am impressed at how they brought the characters to life.

Putting everything I have said aside, Kubo and the Two Strings is just astounding in terms of animation. I had absolutely no idea that stop-motion animation could be used to do what was done here. Kubo and the Two Strings is truly an animated marvel – I am still in shock at how beautiful this film was. Stop-motion animation has been done very well in the past, mainly to tell smaller, more intimate stories, but never before to tell such an epic story – and despite being a stop-motion animated film, Kubo and the Two Strings was not any less epic than the live-action samurai films that inspired it. The animation was truly on another level, and it just proves that while Disney and Pixar may have the money, the best animation will always be found in the independent studios, where innovation is paramount above all. Every animated film that comes after this will have to live up to the extraordinarily high standard set by Kubo and the Two Strings.

Kubo and the Two Strings could be the best film of the year – personally, right now I am torn between this and Everybody Wants Some!! for the top spot on my list – and while the year is far from over, I am having a notoriously difficult time thinking any film is going to top what I saw here. Kubo and the Two Strings is just on another level – it has one of the best soundtracks of the year, and is overall just an exquisite film. Unfortunately, it is also a film that will remain almost completely underseen unless the word-of-mouth is good – so I absolutely implore everyone to go and see this film and spread the good word – you will not see a better animated film this year, and I am doubtful we will see one this good for many, many years. I am so happy that I got to choose this film as my 300th review, because it is certainly one of the most extraordinary films I’ve seen in a long time.

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