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Kubo and the Two Strings

“If you must blink, do it now.” That’s the first line of “Kubo and the Two Strings, spoken over a dark screen, and it’s good advice, because what follows is a visual feast that you won’t want to take your eyes off for even a second. Director Travis Knight and the LAIKA animation team have seamlessly blended stop motion and digital animation to create a movie that doesn’t look like any other.

Young Kubo is a storyteller with the magical ability to make paper turn and fold itself into swirling origami images of the tales he’s telling.  It’s thrilling to watch, and the way he tells stories is not all that different from the way his story is told. I don’t think anything but Kubo’s origami is actually made out of paper, but there is, nonetheless, a tactile sense to the animation, that gives it both a sense of gravity and wonder.

Based on a Japanese folktale, Kubo sets out on a quest to recover magical armor that will protect him from the Moon King, who is also his grandfather. He is aided and protected by a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and a giant beetle samurai (Matthew Macconaughey) who can’t remember who he is, (though the viewer can probably guess.) Kubo must battle a giant skeleton to recover the first item, a sword, and swim down into a garden of eyes to recover the second, a breastplate.  Both of these sequences are visually stunning; I was reminded of the quests in “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

The Moon King wants to blind young Kubo, believing that his ability to see is what keeps him tethered to the physical world and unable to join the world of spirits his grandfather inhabits. In the grand climax, Kubo tries to convince him that it is not his eye, but what his eye sees – the beauty and the glory in the people he loves – that keeps him in this world. The world may be full of brokenness and suffering, but that’s not the whole story.

Unfortunately, the narrative of “Kubo and the Two Strings” isn’t quite as compelling as the animation. There’s a big reveal about halfway through the film, and roughly from that point on, the story gets a little shoddier. Big things are left unexplained, and dramatic turns come out of nowhere. It makes you wonder if the film was edited too tightly.

Its biggest problems, though, are on a thematic level. Like a lot of movie, it falls into the trap of believing that perfection is cold, hard and isolated; it’s weird to see this essentially Platonic idea of perfection in a movie based on Japanese folklore. I think that if there’s no warmth, compassion or love in a conception of perfection, then it’s not perfect, as those are all categorically good things. Perhaps an even bigger problem is its inconsistent relationship with memory and the past; Kubo says that memories are the strongest kind of magic. But we have two characters who have lost their memories; one can sort of figure out what kind of man he was, based on flashes and associations, the other, we’re supposed to believe, can become a different person if he’s told a different story about himself.

By the end, it’s clear that while “Kubo” isn’t a great movie, it’s a great-looking one.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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