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Review: Kubo and the Two Strings Bleeds Heart, Despite Whitewashing

4 out of 5 stars.

Animators at Laika have had quite a remarkable run over the course of the last ten years, as Coraline visually stunned, ParaNorman dug deep into emotional poignancy, and The Boxtrolls demonstrated their wackier sensibilities. Kubo and the Two Strings takes a shot at combining the positive traits of all three, with the visual virtuosity of the studio’s first, the heavy heart of its second and humor of the third culminating into what is simply Laika’s most enjoyable film to date. It doesn’t break any barriers that they haven’t already cleared in the past, but their ambition is strongly on display, and the strong animation coupled with a straightforward and focused story that is equally as mystical as it is evocative makes Kubo another home run for a remarkably consistent studio.

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There is one major flaw standing in the way of freely adoring this film and everything it accomplishes, and that is the fact that while the tale is strictly set in and based on ancient Japanese folklore, the vast majority of its voice cast is white. The leading cast consists of Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes and Rooney Mara, all of whom are talented actors and, in fairness, do an excellent job in bringing life and energy to each of their roles. But you would be hard pressed in convincing me that there weren’t any Asian actors who could have performed these roles just as well. Hell, I have my own picks for whom I would have loved to see in the film, and please let me know in the comments who you would have chosen.

Opinions may vary in regards to how large of a blight this should make on the quality of the film itself, but I think we can agree it’s unfortunate that such a renowned studio couldn’t have been more outgoing with who they cast.

That aside, Kubo is a decidedly well-made film and one that pulled on more than a few of my heartstrings. Its story is powerful: Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a young boy whose life is turned upside down when a spirit from his past targets him and his mother. Forced to escape their village, he teams up with a monkey (Theron) and a samurai beetle (McConaughey) in order to find a magical suit of armor once worn by his late father in order to defeat his grandfather, the mythical Moon King (Fiennes) who defeated his father and stole Kubo’s eye when he was a baby.

Despite the fantastical elements and incredible charm of the non-human characters, Kubo is aching and melancholic, centered around what ties us to humanity writ large and the very real fact that no one lives forever. Tackling themes of grief and moving forward after losing a loved one, the film doesn’t sugarcoat the pains of loss; instead, it makes embracing them a key aspect of the entire story. Kubo’s quest to find the different pieces of armor both helps him accomplish the impending magical fight against the Moon King, and also aids in arming him for a future on his own where he must be ready to move past the traumatic grief of his childhood. It’s a coming of age story masked in one about witches, gods and magic that can make origami come to life.

Laika’s animation has never looked more physically tangible: their crafted backdrops of the ocean climb above the frame to tower over the characters, and clever depth perception tricks lend Mara’s “the Sisters” such a sinister introduction that they always play as if they’re in a horror film rather than a fantasy.

The script stumbles a bit with some aimless detouring right before the first act ends, but the beauty and graceful weaving of the visual storytelling allows for the film to overcome that small bump in the road. Regardless, it’s all very gorgeous work, from the technical aspects (such as Dario Marianelli’s soaring score) to the tale itself, which in one moment plays as a fable and on a dime switches to a heart-wrenching story about a young boy coming to terms with having to grow up quicker than he should. Travis Knight has directed a truly wonderful little film.

Kubo bleeds heart as it tackles growing up with immense urgency and thrilling visuals. This very well might end up being the best animated film 2016 has to offer based on the artistry alone, and to some, one of the best the cinematic year has to offer, period. At times nightmarish and others whimsical, it is as if Laika lifted this fable straight out of an old fairy tale. The opening and closing moments in particular are two of the most powerful audience members will see all year. There aren’t many studios out there today putting in this type of craftsmanship for animated films and the hard work is awe inspiring.

It’s just a shame the voice talent couldn’t have echoed the awe-inspiring diversity onscreen.

Kubo and the Two Strings is out August 19th.

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Allyson Johnson is a twentysomething writer and a lover of film and all things pop culture. She’s a film and television enthusiast and critic over at who spends too much of her free time on Netflix. Her idols are Jo March, Illana Glazer, and Amy Poehler. Check her out at her twitter @AllysonAJ or at The Young Folks.

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