Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature for this year’s Oscars, or perhaps one of the four nominees that’s going to lose to Zootopia … although I could craft a good argument for Kubo winning instead, especially if the quality of the animation and visual style count as much as the story and voice acting do. It’s available to rent or buy (just $10) on amazon and iTunes.
Kubo is a 3D stop-motion film from the same studio that produced Coraline (which is fantastic), Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls, all also filmed with stop-motion animation, a painstaking process of which you get a glimpse if you hang around through Kubo‘s closing credits. It’s incredible to look at and I found it hard to believe some parts were done via stop-motion because they were too smooth and vivid, things we would normally associate with computer animation like Pixar uses in its best-in-breed films.
Kubo is the main character, a one-eyed young boy who lives in a cave outside of his village with his ailing mother, whose grip on reality seems to ebb and flow with the daylight. She tells him heroic stories of his father, Hanzo, a warrior who disappeared while trying to protect his family, and Kubo repeats those stories by day in the town square, using his magic shamisen, which builds and animates origami figures as he plays and talks. By night, he must return to the cave, or his evil grandfather and aunts will return to try to steal his other eye to make their powers complete.
Needless to say, he stays out one night, there’s a battle, and Kubo has to go on a quest to find his father’s missing armor so he can protect himself from his grandfather (voiced by Ralph Fiennes, who is a little too good at the whole villain thing). He’s joined by Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron), a totem he kept who was animated by his mother’s last burst of magic, and eventually Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a giant insect samurai with meory loss, who help him try to retrieve the three parts of the armor and perhaps learn some Valuable Lessons along the way.
The story is a bit hackneyed, but the characters themselves are well-written and there’s plenty of humor within it to keep it from feeling too much like a fable. McConaughey gives a pretty good Buzz Lightyear performance as the flawed hero, mixing in bravado with the absent-mindedness that provides a lot of the comic relief. But Kubo is more of a visual feast than a great story – it’s just such a beautiful and unique-looking film that even the slower sequences when the quest first begins are still riveting.
I’ll also mention Finding Dory quickly here – it wasn’t nominated, falling behind two other Disney properties and two foreign films, and I can see why. It felt a lot like the softer version of Finding Nemo, with a lot less of the first film’s wonder and more feel-good elements – although I thought showing two sequences where Dory is separated from her family might be too much for younger kids. It’s a stunning film to watch, as Pixar manages to animate water and other difficult substances like nobody else in animation history, and I enjoyed the Wire reunion of Idris Elba and Dominic West as sea lions sharing a rock. It’s free to stream on Netflix now.