This image released by Focus Features shows Kubo, voiced by Art Parkinson in a scene from the animated film, "Kubo and the Two Strings." (Laika Studios/Focus Features via AP)

This image released by Focus Features shows Kubo, voiced by Art Parkinson in a scene from the animated film, "Kubo and the Two Strings." (Laika Studios/Focus Features via AP)

Reeling it in: ‘Kubo’ takes animation to new levels

“Kubo and the Two Strings”

Laika Entertainment

1 hour, 41 minutes

 

A recent trend among animated movies has been to have a sequence of exposition — backstory — that is in a markedly different style than the rest of the movie. The “Kung Fu Panda” movies are the most obvious examples I can think of, but it’s pretty ubiquitous. Sometimes those sequences take the form of animated watercolor, shadow puppets, tiny mechanical constructions, or some other disparate art form.

This week’s film, the animated adventure “Kubo and the Two Strings,” does not actually have such a sequence, but rather the entire movie feels like an expanded “special” section.

“Kubo” is the latest from Laika studios, an animation house fast achieving a Pixar-like reputation for quirky, oddball, yet beautiful films. “Coraline,” “ParaNorman,” and “The Boxtrolls” all deal with childhood and fears of abandonment, all done in a very light horror fashion. “Kubo” by comparison, tosses off the modern references and takes to the distant past of Japan.

Kubo is a young boy who spends his days entertaining the people of the village with epic stories of warriors and monsters, and spends his evenings taking care of his mother, near catatonic from a long-ago battle with the forces of darkness. Kubo’s mother, it turns out, is a celestial being, a goddess almost, though she’s never referred to that way. Her love for a mortal samurai aroused the ire of her father, the Moon King, and she fled from the heavens, with Kubo in tow.

Kubo is not just a storyteller, however. He has a special power that allows him to bring to life the unending squares of colored paper that he carries with him wherever he goes. Through a kind of magic origami, Kubo can animate anything from a tiny samurai to a flock of birds. To achieve this miracle, Kubo plays his small guitar, the music driving the magic.

When Kubo and his mother are found by her wicked sisters, Kubo must undertake a quest. Along for the ride are a snow monkey, a warrior turned beetle, and a tiny origami soldier, all acting as protectors and guardians of Kubo, and each with a special link to his own story.

I really enjoyed “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Not only is it exciting and action-packed, but it is one of the most unique looking films to come out of Hollywood in years. Laika, which has made their name in high-end stop motion animation, once again ups their game with this film. The effect of the folding, flying paper is nothing less than magical. The creatures and dangers that Kubo and co. encounter are frightening and exhilarating at the same time, one of which, a massive skeleton, is the largest Claymation figure ever built. This kind of animation used to be relegated to stuff like Gumby or “The Island of Misfit Toys.” Cute and charming, but certainly nothing you’d ever call a masterpiece.

But now, with the work of Aardman (“Wallace & Gromit” and “Shawn the Sheep”) and Laika, Claymation is proving to be far more than many ever thought it could be.

The look of “Kubo” is definitely the selling point, but the rest of the film is certainly quality. Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes and Rooney Mara all bring their A-game to voice these strange and varied characters. Art Parkinson, as Kubo, does a lot of heavy lifting and he does a fine job. There has been talk of the fact that, yet again, a bunch of white actors have been hired to play non-white roles, but this is Hollywood, and you have to sell your movie. You can’t have Ken Watanabe play every part.

I wasn’t quite as thrilled with the script. The story is great, but not all the dialogue sings and there are moments where characters will engage in forced conversations simply to allow time for something more important to happen in the background. It’s irritating, but more so because the rest of the film is of such high quality.

“Kubo and the Two Strings” looks strange because it is strange, and there are probably those out there who will look right past it, assuming it is an art film only meant for fans of foreign cinema. Look again. This is a beautiful, exciting adventure, wholly original and good for the entire family. It would be a shame to miss it.

Grade: A-

“Kubo and the Two Strings” is rated PG for fantasy scares.

 

Chris Jenness is an art teacher, graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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