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Imagine taking a favorite artist’s works of art, putting them into motion, and telling a story. That’s Kubo and the two strings. Forget about the meticulously designed sets and tedious work of moving stop-action figures (you are given a little sense of this as the end credits roll). Set aside all of the effort that goes into telling stories in this manner. Simply drink in the visuals. Revel in the surprising fluidity of the scenes and characters and a beautiful story being told. That’s Kubo and the two strings.Our protagonist Kubo is in desperate straits, having only two strings for his shamisen and a mother to nurse, he only has his super powers of origami to rely on (so reminiscent of Ceony of The Paper Magician).

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There are so many brilliant choice points made throughout this film, one of which is themed color palettes for each of the major set pieces. For example, when you come to the Kubo’s family castle, all is dark. When you walk in the fields, you’re immersed in tans, browns and yellows. Not only do these color palettes set some of the emotion of the scene but they also provide a great way for that scene to stick in your memory.  You’ll recall the dark time at the castle, the hues of late summer fields and blues mixed with the autumn colors of the boat in the sea. While I love the comparatively oversaturated and polychromatic nature of Pixar films, I really appreciate the organic feel of the more muted and similar color threads that are used in a scene in Kubo and the Two Strings. You don’t have vibrant reds clashing with greens and blues and blacks. While the color schemes are clear and beautiful the more natural organic feel to the overall look brings a human element that you typically don’t see in modern animation. I think the producers are right that this element of humanity does come across with the handmade sets, hand-crafted creatures who are set in motion by hand. This is such a human story, after all, even though there are fantastical elements used to tell it. So while there are the Moon King and the (anonymously) masked sisters with their magical powers, it is a story of control vs. letting go, of holding everything to the vest or deep-felt love. Our will willing to be stripped of our humanity so that we may rule from afar or shall we dwell in the midst of murky, messy bits of humanity, both good and bad? These are the issues Kubo and the Two Strings addresses in this beautiful and human manner.

Accompanying Kubo’s journey into his past which points to the future is a poignant, lovely soundtrack by Dario Marianelli (of Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina and V for Vendetta fame). The movie begins with the brooding scene with the mother in the midst of The Impossible Waves and capped off by Regina Spektor’s lilting cover of the Beatles “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Obviously, the Beatles have a great, original rendition with one of my favorite covers by Santana, Yo-Yo Ma and India Arie. Ms. Spektor’s is my favorite recording full stop. Her turn of phrase, the haunting lilt in her voice, and overall tone paired with the shamisen (actually, a three-stringed instrument) are near perfection.

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So, in sum, I love the look and sound of this movie. The story breathes of humanity and pathos, with the exception of the very kid-friendly ending. Speaking of kids, there are dark and scary moments for the very little and those sensitive to these things. I’ve seen parents have to take their children out, so you may want to let the young and sensitive skip this one.

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I won’t wade into the treacherous waters of the controversy around the lack of diversity on the film. Clearly, the main family in this film are not oriental, let alone Japanese. They are white with the white male (McConaughey) having a particularly distinctive voice. I will simply say that the folks at Laika Studios have given this some real thought, though you might find it inadequate, see their response in The Wrap here.   

I really cannot recommend the movie enough.

Story – 4/5

Acting (voice) – 4.5/5

Visuals – 5/5

Sound – 4.5/5

Music – 5/5

 

[****Warning slight spoilers are given below to dive more deeply into the points I’ve discussed***]

One of the chief examples of this lovely mess is the skeletal monster. It’s a huge, scary and a bit of a mess. Its teeth are chaotic bits of bone, it has swords sticking out of its head and its armor is falling apart. Yet it’s powerful, large and daunting with its glowing eyes. Its own color scheme is rusty reds and reddish browns within a cave of verdant green.

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Along with color, texture is used to clue us into the creatures of this world as well. The Kubo and the village were nubby silk and cotton, have coarse hair and their eyes are alive. The two sisters wear hard, smooth masks, reminiscent of Guy Fawkes masks worn by Anonymous, which must be broken through to reach them.These masks show how cold and untouchable they are. The Moon King is ethereal and shimmering; he is not substantial or fully here. They are not truly alive.

 

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