Kubo and the Two Strings, 2016

“If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see and hear, no matter how unusual it may seem. And please be warned: If you fidget, if you look away, if you forget any part of what I tell you – even for an instant – then our hero will surely perish.

“His name is Kubo. His grandfather stole something from him. And that really is the least of it.”

A young boy in an ancient rural Japanese village lives with his mother, who warns him that he must never venture out into the night.  Mentally broken when her Samurai husband died at the hands of her father and two sisters, the mother has safeguarded Kubo over the years as best she could.  The magical forces in play set into motion a quest where Kubo must seek his destiny, armed with a shamisen (a traditional three-stringed guitar) and the power of origami, aided by a monkey and a Samurai beetle, and tasked to find the legendary sword, armor, and helmet that will protect him against his evil grandfather.

This is the story of Kubo and the Two Strings.  The film is written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, produced and first-time directed by Travis Knight.  It features the voice talents of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, and Matthew McConaughey.

Without spoilers, that is about as concise a synopsis as I can write.  And I really don’t want to offer spoilers for this lest I steal some of the magic away from your first viewing of this artistic masterpiece.  I don’t say that lightly.  This film is truly something special.  Imagine, if you will, a 3D stop motion animation spectacular that somehow comes across as the spiritual brainchild of Walt Disney and Ray Harryhausen.  The storytelling is steeped in Ancient Japanese mythology and lore.  The handcrafted characters venture forth on a road story that features over 80 detailed set stages, lovingly rendered and animated with the same kind of effects that gave us the original King Kong, an army of skeleton warriors, and AT-AT walkers, positioned with immaculate patience and precision, one a frame at a time.  Everything is married together in symbiosis so that story feeds the art, and art feeds the story.

Yesterday, I had no idea this movie even existed.  A coworker of mine asked me, a fellow artist with a love of stop motion animation, asked me about it, assuming that I’d seen it opening day.  I assure you, if I had, I’d have been yammering non-stop about it since.  In a rare move for me, I bought my copy based solely on the beauty of the trailer found on YouTube.  It pays to trust your instincts.  Kubo and the Two Strings is easily one of the most amazing modern films I’ve seen, and certainly one of the most timeless.  It has all the hallmarks of an instant classic.  At no point does it talk down to the audience, nor does it pander to it.  It tells a story about family and about confronting your personal demons.  It creates a visual dreamscape so rarely achieved or even attempted anymore.

For a movie this astounding, the only thing that could possibly destroy it at this point is the soundtrack.  Rather than seeking out one of the many, many, many composers out there who have built their names and reputations as Hans Zimmer knock-offs, the filmmakers have brought us one of the best and most versatile storytelling composers of the modern era.  Dario Marianelli is a name I respect from such scores as V for Vendetta and Pride & Prejudice.  For Kubo, Marianelli creates a lush score that melds traditional Japanese instrumentation and meditation with Hollywood excitement.  The music is the touch of the master’s hand that provides the cinematic cherry on top.  For the end credits, Marianelli offers an appropriately Japanese arrangement of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” with vocals by Regina Spektor.  As one who respects the music of Harrison, and especially this song, I tend to get a bit precious about it, but it works here.  I can’t explain why, it just does.  I’m sure it has something to do with the magic of the journey still resonating through you when you hear it.

This is one of those films that I will be pushing people to see.  It deserves to be seen.  It deserves to be cherished.  I can’t hype it enough, and viewers open to the experience will find that Kubo resists such hype and finds its own artistic equilibrium.  I dare you not to be impressed.  I dare you not to fall in love with it for all of the right reasons.

5 stars

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