Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review: "Kubo and the Two Strings" is a Gorgeous Masterpiece

Scene from Kubo and the Two Strings
In an era where animated films are more likely than not to get the CG treatment, one has to wonder if these movies carry the magic that they once did. Beyond the rare exceptions like How to Train Your Dragon 2 or Inside Out, most fall into a formulaic, familiar style that make for an enjoyable experience, but leave plenty to be desired in the aesthetic department. It is in reasoning like this that Laika's latest Kubo and the Two Strings isn't just the best animated film of the year, but possibly one of the most exciting and revolutionary aesthetically of the decade. The blend of stop motion and CG animation unveils the potential for what cinema can be by telling the story of a boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson), a Monkey (Charlize Theron), and a Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) as they go on a mystical journey that explores the grand themes of imagination. If nothing else, it's the studio's most assured film since 2009's Coraline, and it may be their most ambitious yet.

The film opens with what will become Kubo's mantra: "If you must blink, do it now." While this becomes associated with his public performances involving paper mache that comes to life to tell the story of warriors, it may as well be the filmmakers reaching through the screen and telling us of what's to come. Over the course of the next 101 minutes, you will not want to blink. Director and Laika CEO Travis Knight defies you to as he unveils some of the most awe-inspiring animation seen in years. With every detail painstakingly crafted frame by frame, it's easy to take for granted the film's spectacle that comes to life with such ease. The energy is kinetic, the story profoundly deep, the humor is some of the studio's sharpest since 2012's ParaNorman. They have gradually improved with each film, and this may be their most assured film yet. The future of animation is in good hands with Laika, and it isn't likely that audiences will ever want to blink again. 

One of the virtues of Kubo's character is that he's neither too childish nor too adult. He encapsulates a childlike sense of wonder who isn't afraid to talk back nor take up the mantle when necessary. He is a heroic archetype thrust into an odd situation involving a deceased father and catatonic mother that forces him to find solace in music and stories. When his town is destroyed by his evil aunts (Rooney Mara), he begins a journey that serves as a meta commentary on the story that he has been sharing in the promenade for the town folk for presumably years. He has been too choked up to finish the story before, but now he will finish it for good with the help of Monkey and Beetle. The symbolism is conveyed so beautifully that even if it's a tad predictable, it never takes away from the concrete story at the center. This is a story of family, bravery, and the art of narrative. It's Laika's most personal and heartfelt story to date - and it impacts everything else with ease.

What is probably the film's greatest achievement is its ability to explore the unseen. Speaking as Kubo and the Two Strings is inspired by Asian mythology, its visual and music cues (once again done excellently by Dario Marianelli) pop with the creativity only licensed by animation. Among the highlights is a possessed skeleton with swords in its skull, which is actually the largest set piece in stop motion history (stay for the credits, where you get to see animators play around with it); and a sea full of hypnotic eyes that will consume you. It's a beautiful landscape of moments that reflect not only the power of stop motion, but character designs as an art form. It all looks so flawless that you'll be forgiven for thinking that the creation of this film was an easier task than it inevitably was. 

The one complaint can also be its greatest compliment: Laika's blend of the old (stop motion) and new (CG) makes this feel like something more than stop motion animation. It feels like cinema brought to life in kinetic and unique ways. The characters feel more real while the mystical elements blend in awe-inspiring ways. It may not be traditional animation, but it's the logical next step for what this style deserves. The artists are so dedicated that it's hard to see the seams, instead coming across as a fully formed piece of art. The action is some of the best in any animated film so far this decade. The humor pops thanks in large part to McConaughey and Theron's excellent vocal performances. Add in a story that has an unprecedented clarity, and you have the extent of what animation should be in 2016. 

The only shame is that Laika in general doesn't seem to be getting the respect that they deserve. While they have had a flawless track record with Best Animated Film Oscar nominations, their box office trails Pixar, Dreamworks, and even the horrid-looking Sausage Party. Nobody said that the revolution of animation would be regaled upon release, but why shouldn't it? Kubo and the Two Strings is a masterpiece that will be discussed and dissected for decades to come as a perfectly streamlined family film. Much like its previous three, this is a film that warrants big screen treatment, and even justifies in part the use of 3D. This is cinema as an art form, and few are doing it quite at this level in America. Hopefully this is a sign of great things to come, but the box office has to be there to relieve some pressure. 

Kubo and the Two Strings is evidence that even in a summer maligned for uninspired release after uninspired release that there could be silver linings. There could be real art that captures the awe of movie magic. It's a film that is important because there is a craft to every second of the film that shines brighter than any computer generated image. You will be transported to a mystical world where art is allowed to be creative and pleasing to the eye, and stories are allowed to be simple yet effective. Most of all, it reassures Laika's status as the underrated masters of American animation, which will only continue to be more recognized in the years and hopefully decades to come. Until then, take this opportunity to revel in what animation can be. It will restore your faith in cinema and remind you of how craft makes all of the difference in making a film come to life.

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