Kubo and the Two Strings ****

A wonderful work of art and one of the best movies of the year.

Is it worth $10? YES!

There is a distinct lack of originality in modern films. Sadly, that sentiment extends also to animated films. Why is that? Animation is free from physical restraints and is limited only by imagination, yet we are inundated by pap like “Ice Age: Collision Course,” the fourth(!) sequel from that lackluster series. Thankfully there still are animated films that push the envelope like “Kubo and the Two Strings,” an astounding, imaginative visual feast that delivers a strong story with mature themes, yet is still accessible to children without pandering to them.

In ancient Japan, Kubo (Art Parkinson), a young boy with magical powers that manifest when he plays his samisen, a three stringed lute, keeps a low profile in an isolated village where he takes care of his ailing mother, Kameyo (Brenda Vaccaro). They are hiding from Raider the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), a spirit angered by Kameyo years ago. Alas, Kubo is discovered by the Sisters (Rooney Mara), who are the creepy, masked daughters of the Moon King. With his two protectors, Monkey (Charlize Theron), an enchanted figure come to life, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), an armored half man, half beetle with amnesia, and with the Sisters in hot pursuit, Kubo embarks on an adventure to retrieve his mysterious father’s suit of armor in order to vanquish the Moon King.

Yes, the synopsis reads like something you would find on the back of a battered VHS copy of a Hong Kong fantasy film: a lot of gibberish. And yes, it might remind you of when “Dune” was released to theaters in 1984 and ushers had to provide cheat sheets with character names, descriptions, and basic exposition in the hopes of at least giving the audience a chance to decipher that mess of a film. Wild as it is, though, you won’t need to a cheat sheet to figure “Kubo” out.

While “Kubo” has a kooky story, it isn’t simply empty kook. It has serious thought and emotion to buoy all of the craziness, and it uses its story to explore serious themes of death and dying, and how to cope with the loss of a loved one. Sad, to be sure, and not something you would expect to find in an animated, family adventure film, but don’t worry; it is handled with a deft touch that is both uplifting and hopeful.

And that touch permeates the whole film.  “A boat can float in water – and sink in it.” Wong-Fei-hung wrestled with this philosophy for the duration of “Drunken Master II.” The director of “Kubo,” Travis Knight, and its writers, Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, appear to understand its meaning implicitly: Don’t overdo it. “Kubo” has spooky and creepy moments, but it’s never terrifying. There’s also a good amount of action with a focus on swordplay, yet the movie never devolves into violence. And while there’s a healthy dose of comedy (mostly courtesy of Beetle), it’s never intrusive or overbearing. The filmmakers know how to float the boat and not sink it.

All of this combines into an emotional film. Be prepared for tears once the credits roll. At my screening, the lights suddenly switched on just as the film ended, and it was as if the lights came up in a Times Square theater from the ‘70s. Everybody jumped up and out of their seats and started doing absurd things in order to avoid eye contact. One person pretended to look for his contacts on the floor, while another began investigating his 3D glasses, deducing that they were making his eyes water. The ushers finally took pity on us and turned the lights off again, and that’s when another amazing thing happened: everybody remained in the theater and nobody moved for the duration of the entire credits. That’s how powerful the movie is. 

That “Kubo and the Two Strings” is a wholly original film that is not adapted from or a sequel to a previous property makes it noteworthy. But with its excellent voice acting, spectacular and expressive animation, and a strong humanist streak that emphasizes love and compassion over violence, it is more than just noteworthy. It is a rare gem of a film, animated or otherwise. It doesn’t take that much for a movie to please me, but it does take a lot to impress me. This is an impressive movie.

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