This is a review of the animated film Kubo and the Two Strings.
“If you must blink, do it now,” is Kubo’s (Art Parkinson) fair warning to the audience, as he starts to narrate his story in the most hypnotizing and virtuous manner that belies his age. At eleven years old, Kubo is an adroit storyteller who amazes throngs of villagers in his Japanese feudal community with his wonderfully weaved words, enchanting origami figures that move as he pleases and his rock star-like attitude as he plays the shamisen. Kubo is not bothered by his missing left eye, which is hidden behind an eye patch and obscured by his boyband member bangs.
Every day, Kubo delineates the heroics of a great samurai named Hanzo, who battled all kinds of monsters in this realm and beyond, to the delight of young and old alike, in exchange for some coins. As the village bell signals the departure of the sun god and the arrival of the moon goddess, Kubo quickly makes his way back to an isolated cave with phenomenal view that he shares with his almost-catatonic-mostly-crazy mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron).
Sariatu’s unfortunate situation is brought about by a major family altercation more than a decade ago, which resulted to the death of her husband Hanzo and the forceful taking of Kubo’s eye. In order to keep Sariatu’s otherworldly sisters, Karasu and Yukami (Rooney Mara) from tracking their whereabouts, Sariatu forbids Kubo from staying out at night.
The life Kubo and Sariatu have built together, regardless of its quality, changes forever when curiosity gets the better of the otherwise dutiful Kubo. On a festival devoted to talking to dead loved ones takes place, Kubo unknowingly forgets to go home at dusk, and the Kabuki-masked evil sisters of Sariatu discover him immediately. The unexpected family reunion results into another battle between the fragile as china Sariatu and the quick as lightning sisters with chilling voices.
In a blink of an eye, Kubo finds himself in a distant land, covered in snow and with a full-grown monkey beside him. The full-grown monkey is the charm his mother tells him to keep at all times in his person and is aptly named Monkey (Charlize Theron). Like Tywin Lannister and Evelyn Powell before her, Monkey has razor sharp blade as tongue and slays Kubo and his foolish thoughts with a single retort or a deathly stare.
To protect himself from his evil aunts, Kubo has to go on a quest to find three items that can combat the evil sisters’ wrath: the Sword Unbreakable, the Breastplate Impenetrable and the Helmet Invulnerable. As they trudge their way through the seemingly endless snow, they meet a samurai warrior with memory loss trapped in a beetle’s body. He is prudently named Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Despite Beetle’s amnesia and Monkey’s initial suspicions of him, his many “indispensabilities” forces Monkey to reluctantly let him tag along.
The trio of a boy, a monkey and a beetle continue the dangerous quest to find a trio of vital objects to protect Kubo and his right eye from the unparalleled fury of his aunts and his grandfather, the badass Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).
Kubo and the Two Strings is very rich in texture, colors and fluid motion. The origami figures in flight, especially in Kubo’s storytelling in the village, are unreal and make one fall in love with the art of paper folding. The vibrant and gay atmosphere in this part is in great contrast with the appearances of the evil sisters, where black and grays are the predominant colors to signify, well, foreboding, danger and darkness.
Scenes with Kubo, Monkey and Beetle, and their banters are some of the higher points of the movie. Monkey’s pragmatism and Beetle’s bordering-on-the-corny self-deprecating jokes are hilarious, yet they also succeed in tugging at the heartstrings every time they put Kubo’s well-being above their own (when they feasted on sashimi is the saddest part of the movie for me).
The only (minor) flaw of Kubo and the Two Strings is the seemingly rushed third act. While the Kubo’s life in the village and the trio’s quest for the precious items that can protect Kubo’s precious eye (and life) are layered and structurally sound with good brick-by-brick foundation that one can almost feel the texture of the origami papers and the taste of the sashimi, the last part seem lacking in development and depth. The fight scenes are short and routine-like and the build-up to that scene in the village is inadequate. If I blinked, I would have missed what happened there.
Kubo and the Two Strings is an intelligent animated film that appeals to kids and kids at heart. It tackles serious subjects like betrayal and loss of loved ones on one end of the spectrum, and loyalty and sense of community on the other. These subjects are shown in a visually stunning animation that makes one’s jaw drop to the floor and clap with glee after recovering said jaw from the floor, set in a versatile yet evocative background music and uttered in funny quips by adorable characters. Thankfully, these adorable characters do not burst into songs like other animated characters are wont to do. I can imagine Monkey saying, “don’t even (think about making me sing)” complete with a withering glare.
Of the films nominated for Best Animated Feature Film for the 2017 Oscars, I have watched Zootopia, Moana and Kubo and the Two Strings. This is my bet to win it.
Most Memorable Quotes from Kubo and the Two Strings:
“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.” – Kubo said this in its entirety twice, at the start of the film and at the start of his storytelling show in the village. Sorry, Kubo, I did blink and look away.
“His name is Kubo. His grandfather stole something from him. And that really is the least of it.” – Kubo
“Once we’re inside, you might be tempted to complain about the odor. Keep in mind my sense of smell is ten times stronger than yours.” – Monkey to Kubo
“So, if you don’t eat, you’ll be weak. If you’re weak, you’ll be slow. If you’re slow, you’ll die.” – Monkey forcing Kubo to eat the disgusting whale food she prepared.
“And memories are powerful things, Kubo. Never lose it (his mother’s hair).” – Monkey
“You’re growing stronger. You might not wanna look quite so pleased about that. We grow stronger, the world grows more dangerous. Life has a funny way of keeping things balanced.” – Monkey to Kubo
“No, not just any man. A samurai. I mean, I’m pretty certain. Look, I had the stuff. I mean, I’m either a samurai or a really bad hoarder. Either way, inside my thorax beats the heart of a warrior.” – Beetle
The memories, they fade, and all I’m left with is the sense that I was once part of something much greater.” – Beetle
“Our quest is a difficult one. A samurai, even a cursed one with no memory, that looks like a bug, could be helpful.” – Kubo defending Beetle’s inclusion in his and Monkey’s quest.
“Just tell me of our quest, and I will quickly demonstrate my numerous indispensabilities.” – Beetle
“I promise I won’t blink. I actually don’t think I even can blink. Do I have eyelids?” – Beetle, and when he opened his eyes to know whether or not he has eyelids is the scariest part of the film. 🙂
“I wasn’t a toy. I was a charm.” – Monkey. So cute.
“What’s the matter, Kubo? You act like you’ve never had a meal sitting between a monkey and a beetle before.” – Beetle, to which Kubo answers, “I’ve never had a meal sitting between anyone before.” Awwwwwww.
“I come fishing and all I reel in is a stinking ape.” – Karasu and Yukami or the Evil Sisters
“If I’m Beetle, and you’re Monkey, why isn’t he called “boy”?” – Beetle referring to Kubo. He has a point.
“It was his humanity I saw, and it was more powerful than anything in my cold realm.” – Monkey