For over two decades, Pixar has dominated the animation realm with their fantastic films that appeal to both kids and adults. Every other animation studio, including Disney’s own in-house studio, has played catch-up trying to match Pixar’s success in both computer animation and storytelling. Then there’s Laika, the animation studio that does things a little bit differently. Laika’s stock and trade is in stop-motion animation as opposed to computer animation. Their films have been well-received by critics, but have never matched the commercial muscle of Pixar. Their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, is their first wholly original story and is easily the best film of the summer.
Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a young boy living in Japan with his ailing mother. During the day, Kubo leaves their cliff-side dwelling to go to the nearby village to make money by entertaining the villagers with his magical origami creations. He regales the villagers with tales of his missing samurai father, Hanzo. The only rule Kubo’s mother has is for him to be home before dark, because otherwise, her father, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), can see him. If that happens, he will try to take Kubo’s remaining eye. One evening, Kubo does not get home in time and is attacked by his mother’s Sisters (Rooney Mara). His mother casts a spell and when he awakens, Kubo finds himself miles away and the monkey totem he carries with him has come to life. The totem, known simply as Monkey (Charlize Theron), has been tasked with protecting Kubo. In order to defeat the Moon King, Kubo must assemble a magic suit of armor and find the sword that can kill the villain. Along the way, Monkey and Kubo meet Beetle (Matthew McConnaughey), a cursed samurai who once served with Hanzo. Will Kubo succeed in his quest or will the Moon King triumph?
Kubo and the Two Strings is a very imaginative story that presents a great, heartwarming adventure for kids and adults alike. Laika’s combination of stop-motion characters and CGI backgrounds on this one results in a fantastic animated experience. There is not an off-note in this entire film. My only possible problem would be that Theron and McConnaughey sounded a little too modern in their dialogue for this tale clearly set in a more ancient time, but they were still very good in their roles overall. Again, it’s a minor quibble. This film does so much right, it’s really difficult to find anything wrong with it. It also might be too scary for little kids, but that’s about it. There is so much wonder in this film with such a well-told story that it’s a winner on every level.
The voice work in this film is excellent. Parkinson (Rickon from Game of Thrones!) does a great job as Kubo, hitting all the right notes of fear and strength throughout. Theron is a strong, sardonic presence as Monkey and McConnaughey brings a playful innocence to Beetle, the samurai who has lost his memory. Fiennes and Mara are also great as the villains. Fiennes is powerful, while Mara brings an ethereal quality to the Sisters. It’s also great to hear familiar voices like George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Brenda Vaccaro is also funny as Kubo’s friend, Kameyo. It would have been nice to see more Japanese voice actors in this very Japanese tale, though.
Overall, Kubo and the Two Strings is not only the best film of the summer, but thus far, it’s the best movie of the year. As far as I’m concerned, the Oscar race for Best Animated Film is over. I can’t recommend this one enough. This movie should be the one that launches Laika into the big leagues, but audiences are afraid to try new things. See it. You won’t regret it.