Sunday, September 18, 2016

"Kubo and the Two Strings"

 5 / 5 

Have we gotten so accustomed to simplicity in animation that the complexity of Kubo and the Two Strings is such a surprise?

We've grown used to animated films with princesses and sidekicks and moments in which the heroine states explicitly what's on her mind (back in the '90s, when this was fresh, it was called the "I Want Song"), that the very existence of Kubo and the Two Strings is a little miracle.  It's a big-budget film released by a major studio, but it both expects and requires it audience to pay attention.  That's more than you can say about almost all mainstream, live-action films anymore.

It's the most complex, thoughtful film I've seen in a summer that has included the complex and thoughtful Hell or High Water, and it's certainly the most emotionally surprising and honest film I've seen all year.  On top of all of that, Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the most visually majestic movies anyone will ever see, a wonder of stop-motion animation made with overwhelming artistry, which extends to its exquisite musical score.

It begins with a storm at sea as Kubo (Art Parkinson) narrates his own story, telling how his mother took a great risk to keep him safe from her jealous, vengeful family, including the Moon King, Kubo's loathsome grandfather, who stole the boy's left eye and desperately wants the other.

Gruesome?  Yes, but that's only the beginning.  The grandfather and the mother's two wraithlike sisters killed Kubo's father.  Kubo's mother keeps him safe high on a mountain overlooking a small village in ancient Japan.  She has a sad, far-away look in her eyes, and has sacrificed so much for Kubo that she seems to hardly be able to move.

During the day, Kubo takes his magical three-stringed shamisen and a stack of origami paper and entertains the villagers with tall tales that the paper brings to life when he plucks the strings of his instrument.

But Kubo must be back by sunset.  It is the only way his mother can keep him safe.  But Kubo, like all great heroes, is curious, and when he hears of a life outside the one he knows, he wants to see what it is like.  He stays out too late -- and, indeed, the evil aunts swoop down from the skies to find him.

That begins an epic quest as Kubo searches for the legendary suit of armor that can keep him safe and help him vanquish his evil family.  Like Dorothy in Oz, he meets three strangers along the way who help him: A snow monkey who seems to have sprung to life from a charm Kubo's mother gave him, a wordless little paper samurai, and a giant half-man half-beetle.

The monkey (Charlize Theron) seems to know much about Kubo, but the beetle (Matthew McConaughey) has lost his memory.  They search for the armor together, in a grand quest through snowy mountains, forbidding forests, unknown caverns and onto a mysterious lake.

Never predictable nor boring, but frequently surprisingly quiet and thoughtful, Kubo and the Two Strings is a grand adventure, a blend of The Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter that excels at finding the intersection of action and emotion.

If it has a fault, it's only that it's so densely plotted its story may be overwhelming, yet how can that be a quibble when it's such a literate, intelligent and inventive adventure, one that ends not with a tangible reward but an emotional one: Instead of learning the importance of a simple emotion like love or bravery, Kubo is taught the importance of the memory of the dead, the power of the past to sway the future, and the complex relationships we have with people we love, even after they're gone.

Only toward the end of the film does Kubo reveal the meaning of the two strings in its title.  The moment is a powerful one, a revelation both of plot and of character, yet it has such careful nuance that it leaves room for interpretation.  Kubo and the Two Strings is the rare film, whether for children or adults, that keeps you thinking, and talking, about its intentions long after its final, beautiful frame.

Viewed Sept. 18, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


No comments:

Post a Comment