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Monday, August 22, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

A very quick look at one of the best animated films of the year. 

And, yes, I do like this more than Finding Dory.

What it's about: Kubo lives a quiet life in a small Japanese village, tending to his ill mother and entertaining the people of the village with his magical ability to transform simple pieces of paper into animated origami just by plucking the strings on his old, trusty guitar-like instrument, bringing to life fantastical but possibly true stories of heroism and adventure. It isn't long, however, before the turbulent, violent past that brought Kubo and his mother to the village in the first place, up-ends his quiet existence and sends him on a dangerous mission to acquire the three objects needed to stop the ancient, immortal evil that threatens all that he holds dear.      

What I thought: Kubo and the Two Strings may sound like an orientally-themed indie band but it's actually the wonderful fourth film from the animation wizards at Laika Studios, who continually refuse to put a foot wrong. Following on from Coraline, Paranorman and the Boxtrolls, Kubo is another breathtakingly beautiful mix of stop-motion animation and CGI and it, once again, not only stands up to anything their rivals (including Pixar) have currently been putting out but has an edge to it that is all but absent from traditional American animation aimed at kids.

To be fair, the actual narrative here, which plays out like a slightly overstretched Japanese folk tale, isn't quite as compelling as any of Laika previous masterpieces and the decision to add some occasional Disney-like humour to soften some of the film's more cuttingly emotional moments may be understandable but it does make for a slightly inconsistent tone.

Fortunately, though, these are ultimately minor quibbles in a film that gets everything else very, very right indeed. Most pertinently, like Pixar at its best, Kubo and the Two Strings is a film that is ostensibly aimed at younger audiences but is one that packs an emotional punch that plays on its younger and older audiences in complementary but quite different ways. Effectively an examination of loss, memory and our ability to cope with grief - specifically the death of a parent - Kubo plays with the fear of abandonment that is universal in all young children and the sheer reality of loss, of all kinds, that all adults (and, sadly, some children) have to deal with at some point or another.

As I say, it's not exactly surprising that some goofier humour was thrown in to leaven things the film's darker moments but it still feels slightly out of place - as opposed to some of the more subtle, character-based humour that shows up at least as often. And it's certainly not like Kubo and the Two Strings is just a slow, elegiac meditation on life and death - though it certainly has moments of exactly that. Mostly, for all of its thematic complexities and quiet character moments, it is a rollicking adventure filled with colourful spectacle and terrifically imaginative set-pieces; all told from the viewpoint of a plucky and eminently likeable young hero.

And then there is the look of the thing. The level of art design and animation on display here are nothing short of jaw-dropping with every inch of the film, from distant backgrounds to the characters themselves, a textbook example of visual imagination and impeccable design that really has to be seen to be believed. Just as one simple example, Kubo's abilities with origami brings with it a real sense of awe and wonder that is a direct reflection of the physical nature of the animation mixing with the animation on display in the art design. That all of this is accompanied by one of the year's very, very best scores by Dario Marianelli (and topped off with a wonderful cover of George Harrison's immortal While My Guitar Gently Weeps by Marianelli and Regina Spektor) only adds to the magic.

Directed beautifully by Travis Knight and featuring a top-notch voice cast (including many Japanese-Americans in supporting roles) and witty, heartfelt writing, Kubo and the Two Strings easily transcends its flaws and ends up as one of the year's best films - animated or otherwise.

Please note, however, that while this will work just as well for adults as it will their kids, it's probably not for very young kids or kids who are easily upset. I believe it carries a 10 age-restriction in this country and, though I could see it being okay for slightly younger children of a tougher disposition, parents would do well to not take that FPB rating (or the similar PG-level ratings of other countries) lightly.

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