Starring (Voices): Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey
Director: Travis Knight
Running Time: 104 mins
Synopsis: Young one-eyed Kubo (Parkinson) finds himself seeking out three secret instruments needed to protect himself from the evil Moon King, who seeks his remaining eye. He is assisted on this journey by a Monkey (Theron) and a Samurai Beetle (McConaughey). I know this all sounds odd but it’s awesome believe me.
Stop-motion giants Laika Animation are obsessed with eyes. Both here and in their debut masterwork Coraline, the central protagonists face off against evil family members whom seek to take the eyes from our heroes. I can only presume the obsession stems from how important the very nature of sight factors in their work. How else could we appreciate the hugely time consuming factor of their chosen animation style, if not for our ability to respect the utterly breathtaking visuals we bare witness to. Plus the obviously thematic importance the eyes offer, the windows to our very heart and soul.
Right from the off our eyes are captivated by some simply stunning imagery. A thin woman making her way through stormy seas, using magic she manages to part the waves in an image of pure wonder. Succumbing to the waves, and hitting her head brutally on a rock, she washes up on the shore. A package lies next to her, wailing. This is Kubo, and this is his mother. So the story begins and we catch up with the duo a number of years later. Kubo is a storyteller, he spends his days with his magic guitar entertaining the local villagers with tales of brave knights fighting wicked monsters, all told via living paper given life through said guitar. It, like the rest of the film, is completely engrossing. Kubo must then return before sundown to his seemingly vegetative mother, for reasons unknown. The way his mum is portrayed is surprisingly mature. She spends large amounts of time in a catatonic state then has periods of real lucidity, during which she regales Kubo with tales of his heroic now dead father. We are unsure if this is due to the earlier head wound, or down to her magic failing, or for some other unknown reason. It is a hugely adult piece of characterisation.
Although Kubo is warned to get home before sundown we can all guess what turn the story will inevitably make. As Kubo is caught after dark we are introduced to his aunts (voiced with chilly calmness by Rooney Mara) and treated to a scene of real horror, as in their previous work Laika are not afraid of terrorising their young audience members. After this attack our young hero sets out on his journey to seek three tools needed to defend himself and defeat the dreaded Moon King (who just so happens to be his grandfather). On paper it all seems a little over complicated and confusing, and yes at times you do need to concentrate hard on the frequent plot developments. Laika, though, seek to reward their audience’s concentration with thrilling action, intricate characterisation and a hugely moving payoff.
Once Kubo is joined by a Monkey and a giant Beetle the adventure truly goes to some strange and beguiling places. The stop motion/CGI mash-up results in some of the most gorgeous imagery Laika have ever produced, just look at the Monkey’s fur for one such example of their attention to detail. It appears to be made up of hundreds of individual little pieces that all flow differently in the wind. I also cannot let one sequence featuring a giant skeleton go unmentioned, it is a feat of stellar proportions and a loving ode to the work of Ray Harryhausen.
All this wonderful visual work would be fine but it is in the story that the true wonder lies. Ostensibly an ode to the very nature of storytelling. It challenges such things as the power of memory, the pain of grief and the way we find comfort in the narratives we create around ourselves. These aren’t trivial matters to tackle in a kids film, they are weighty and complex themes. Director and Laika CEO Travis Knight never lets these pull down the film though, he counters it with a sterling script by Marc Haimes & Chris Butler full of humour, wit and warmth. Kubo is actually very very funny, aided immensely by some terrific voice work, notably from Theron and McConaughey. It is young Art Parkinson (Rickon Stark from Game of Thrones) who is the real standout, gracing Kubo with fragility and a wry playfulness.
To describe much more will deny you of a truly wonderful movie experience. Suffice to say if you do not shed a tear come the final moments you are truly not human. This is just a stunning work of immense craft, created with such care, love and attention to detail that it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. It won’t just be your eyes that thank you for it but your heart too.
Verdict: A soaring immaculately crafted slice of family entertainment. Surprisingly dense storytelling and weighty themes given a lightness of touch thanks to a playful script delivered by an impeccable voice cast. The title may be a mouthful but don’t let that sway you from one of 2016s best films!