Is it premature to declare a film a cult classic while it’s still in theaters? Kubo and the Two Strings, a $60 million stop-motion gem unlikely to recoup that princely sum in theaters, seems destined for that fate.
In an exceptionally poor summer stuffed to the gills with sequels and reboots, Kubo is a true original — the kind we complain there are too few of after seeing something like Minions.
It was produced by Laika, the same studio responsible for the offbeat Coraline and The Boxtrolls. Travis Knight, the company’s lead animator and now a first-time director, proudly carries the outré torch that distinguished those earlier features. Our hero has one eye and one parent, his famed samurai of a father having long since passed away; his mother, struck by grief, is less present with each passing day.
“If you must blink, do it now,” says Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) as the film opens. He’s speaking to a small crowd assembled to see his latest street performance, but his message feels intended for us as well. The little boy performs on a three-stringed samisen for awed onlookers, bringing origami to life as he tells a fable-like story involving a Sword Unbreakable and Shield Impenetrable. Like his own story, this one has a core of sadness that’s been made fantastical in order to be more palatable.
The film being a sort of fairy tale itself, the sword and shield of Kubo’s fable will soon factor into his own story. So too will a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey), who help young Kubo reclaim those storied artifacts in order to avenge his father.
That’s a familiar enough setup, and one that the filmmakers make good on in a series of breathtaking sequences. The most striking sight is that of the Sisters, malevolent witches voiced by Rooney Mara and sporting expressionless Noh masks. One of them appears during a gorgeous sequence on a ship made of leaves, her blank visage a stark contrast to her frightful movements and tranquil surroundings. That’s often true of the film as a whole: Kubo’s most visually beautiful scenes tend to be the most emotionally fraught.
Most animated fare comes ready-made for Netflix — clearly the work of talented professionals, but not the kind of cinematic experience that demands to be seen on the big screen. (The kiddos, sophisticated though they sometimes are, tend not to care much about cinematography and mise en scène.)
Kubo is the rare exception. This is a genuine widescreen marvel in which every beautiful frame deserves to be pored over. It’s fitting that a film all about the intermingling between this world and the next is certain to have a rewarding afterlife once it’s departed theaters. Still, wouldn’t you rather see Kubo and the Two Strings as it’s meant to be seen?
Kubo and the Two Strings
Directed by Travis Knight
Area theaters, now playing