Mythology comes to life in Laika Animation’s new masterpiece Kubo and The Two Strings. Maybe this reveals more about me than about the films, but it now seems inevitable that two of my top choices for year’s best – Hacksaw Ridge and now this – both entail a kind of spiritual journey teeming with compassion. Nevertheless, this The Wizard of Oz and The Legend of Zelda Japanese adventure hybrid is the closest thing we have to a true spiritual reincarnation of Star Wars.
Kubo (Art Parkinson), a one-eyed boy, spends daylight telling his town stories about his father, a samurai legend, who died before he knew him, and recreating the spectacle through the Eastern oral, musical, and oragami traditions of storytelling through a magical shamisen. But without knowledge of how his father’s story ends, nor an immediate way to learn it, Kubo’s thirst for a stronger emotional connection with the memory of him results in a disaster that sends him off on a quest to reclaim his father’s magic samurai arsenal with two companions – a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and warrior beetle (Matthew McConaughey).
No review, even a minimal one like this, would be complete without a mention of just how incredible the animation is. You have to stay through the credits to see precisely how, but stop motion animation has truly never been better. But the truth is – in the moment I barely noticed that. I was too drawn into the story, setting, and characters. Monkey and Beetle bicker like a married couple but unite in their care for Kubo. And the villains hunting him are appropriately menacing even though they only come one at a time. The action is a dynamic and energetic thrill ride, and serene moments, like a flock of paper birds swarming a real one, have their own magic. This is one of the most perfect Fall movies ever, which makes me kick myself for not seeing it until the first day of Winter.
Yet the heart beating at the core is ultimately what allows Kubo to stand tall among the year’s best. Few other films have so effectively stood athwart the dreariness of the year 2016, and fewer still have so expressively employed the modern tools of storytelling to elicit and honor the power of the story itself.