Starring (voices): Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes
Rated PG for Thematic Elements, Scary Images, Action and Peril
I went into this movie fresh. I didn't know what it was about, but more importantly, it came without any baggage. It's not based on a book, a comic, or an old TV show. It's not a remake/reboot/reimagining/whatever Hollywood is calling it now. It's free of any internet hype from internet fans pre-disposed to loving it or hating it because it has/doesn't have their favorite characters. Or that it exists at all. In other words, it's allowed to do what it should be able to do: fail or succeed on its own terms.
"Kubo and the Two Strings" is a good, but not great, stop-motion animated fantasy. It consistently looks great and has some humorous moments, but the film lacks a strong set-up, a clean script and a confident director. All in all though the film contains more pluses than minuses.
Kubo (Parkinson) is a little boy who charms the villagers with his story about a legendary samurai and the evil Moon King. With the help of his little guitar, he can make origami paper act out his story to the delight of the townspeople. However, just as he manages to get to the end, it grows dark, and he goes home. That's because his mother tells him, in one of her rare moments of lucidity, that she cannot protect him after dark. One day, a friend in the village laments his predicament because lots of interesting things happen at the upcoming festival after dark. So Kubo decides to break the rules and stays out after the sun goes down. That's when he finds out that the myth he tells his fans is true, and he meets his mother's creepy sisters (Mara) and ends up in the middle of a sudden snowstorm with a monkey (Theron), an origami soldier that can move but not speak, and a man cursed to be the form of a beetle (McConaughey). To survive the threat of his evil aunts and worse grandfather (Fiennes), he needs to find three sacred pieces of armor.
It sounds very complicated and it sometimes is. More than it should, I think. The film doesn't effectively establish the rules of its world, which means there are times when it feels contrived or that we are playing catch-up with the plot (three different people credited to the script could be a reason). Another run-through with the screenplay that smoothed out some of its rough edges would have given it more strength.
The voice acting is effective, but not stand out. It can't hold a candle to something like Pixar, mostly because the writing isn't there. Art Parkinson, who plays Rickon on "Game of Thrones," is quite good as Kubo, imbuing him with the necessary strength and vulnerability necessary for a part like this. Charlize Theron is uneven. She's good as the stern but affectionate Monkey, but lacks the timing and the snark to make her relationship with the dim-witted but enthusiastic Beetle. Matthew McConaughey is hilarious as the third member of the quartet, getting all the mileage he can from playing what is essentially a male ditz. Rooney Mara is unrecognizable as the sisters (since they're identical twins, it makes sense that she voices both), creating the second most unsettling villain(s) of the year (after, of course, the horrifying nun in "The Conjuring 2"). Ralph Fiennes is his usual reliable self as The Moon King, although I wonder if a less recognizable actor would have worked better.
Mention must be made of the ending, which is unsatisfying. Director Travis Knight appears to be want to have his cake and eat it too. The whole plot has us gearing up for an epic showdown between the four main characters and the Moon King, but it quickly shifts into something else that wants to be simultaneously sad and forgiving. It doesn't really work.
Still, I liked the fact that it ventured away from "safe" formulas and tried to do something different. Readers of my reviews will know that I am more forgiving of films that try to do something different even if they don't quite make it work. While "Kubo and the Two Strings" is good enough in its own right, I still give it credit for taking chances.