Released: September 2016
Conjouring up lost worlds, where stories and magic are interwoven strands of the same cloth, Kubo and the Two Strings is probably my favourite family film of 2016. That puts it up against Zootopia, The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon and others in a really competitive year for the family market, and I still believe this one stands out. The story feels so old it’s hard not believe it’s not a retelling of a classic legend, which is refreshing in a world where making a children’s film a family film usually means adding wisecracks, and yet it’s almost startling in it’s originality.
Kubo is an only child, living in a cave with his severely depressed and hermit-like mother. He is her sole carer, and bread-winner, running down to the nearby village each day to weave tales of magic and bravery for the locals in exchange for coins and food. The two-strings of the title is his musical instrument, a shamisen, with which he adds to his stories. The magical part is his origami, which springs to life when he plays his music, acting out the tales of bravery, wise men and fierce creatures. After staying out past sunset one night causes the Aunts to find and attack him, starting him on a quest he must see through to the end. He is accompanied by a magic monkey (Charlize Theron), formed from his Mother’s magic and a charm he always carried, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a former samurai with no memories prior to being condemned to spend the rest of his life as a man-insect hybrid.
As well as a strong, adventurous plot, with plenty of peril and twists in how they get out of the various troubles they are in, the film itself is quite simply beautiful. Using stop-motion models gives the film a depth and warmth that is missing from many computer generated animations, and the few bits of CGI that are used, such as for the water-scenes and some of the backdrops, have so much attention to detail it works seamlessly. This is clearly a labour of love, and no short cuts have been taken.
The faces, often the let down in stop-motion films, are wonderfully expressive, and the talented cast all inject real life and personality into their creations. This is especially true of Matthew McConaughey who plays Beetle. His is the closest to zany sidekick that Kubo gets, and it could have been very easy to make Beetle a fool and nothing more, but a nuanced performance from McConaughey brings genuine depth to a light character.
This is genuinely a film for all the family. Very young children may find some scenes frightening, but there is much in it for them to love, while older children will want to be Kubo, or possibly brave and loyal but dimwitted Beetle. Adults can sit back and enjoy the craft of the storytelling, the beauty of the animation and the gentle humour.