One of my long-standing rules here on Midlife Crisis Crossover is that every movie I watch in theaters gets its own entry. The results aren’t a formal review so much as they’re a brick-by-brick deconstruction to cherry-pick which parts I’m interesting in recording my thoughts about for my own future archival purposes, stitched together with just enough exposition and summation for any MCC readers interested in following along even if they haven’t seen the movie in question.
Said subsection of readers isn’t what it used to be. I realize the format is odd and amateurish in some respects, and it’s not lost on me that the movie entries receive far fewer Likes from other WordPress users than our travel photo galleries do. But part of the grand MCC experiment is facilitating my itch to write and express myself, hoping anyone else out there finds kernels of usefulness in my indulgences, and not wallowing in self-loathing second-guessing whenever they don’t. It’s been one of the tougher aspects of the blogging process to grapple, and I think I’m thiiiiis close to nailing it.
I saw Kubo and the Two Strings over a month ago but kept procrastinating its entry because I worried the results would be a 1000-word stream-of-consciousness brainstorming session of every complimentary adjective Roget ever catalogued. And if there’s one opinion above all that I’ve acquired after 4½ years of writing about theatrical releases, it’s that I’ve grown to hate adjectives as a word class. Rather than risk abolishing the long-standing rule mentioned in paragraph one, I can either stick to my commitment or find something else to write about between travel entries.
Soooo who wants to see me typing lots about the week in politics?
…okay, then: Kubo!
Short version for the unfamiliar: Our young hero Kubo (Art Parkinson, the little brother from San Andreas) lives an idyllic life in a happy Olde Japan village alone with his single mom whose condition requires what we call in modern times “assisted living”. By night he’s her caretaker; by day, he’s a street-corner performer whose oddly specific superpower lets him stage living origami performances through his Japanese guitar. In the meta view, Kubo is a puppet and a puppeteer.
A momentary sidestepping of one of Mom’s most important rules brings him face to face with the evil sorceress aunts he never knew (Rooney Mara and also Rooney Mara). Their malignant presence ruins everything, and the ensuing chaos sends him on a road trip to track down three pieces of legendary MacGuffin armament that will aid him in the coming battle against the Sisters’ big bad boss, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes, less histrionic than Voldemort). Kubo finds himself a pair of escorts: Beetle (Matthew McConaughey playing affably dumb), an amnesiac insect warrior; Monkey (Charlize Theron, once again frustrated by males), who’s Kubo’s little wooden lucky charm brought to life as his full-size bodyguard; and silent Little Hanzo, an itty-bitty origami soldier with a mind of its own and acting lessons from Aladdin’s carpet. Can this mismatched quartet locate the three magical artifacts without getting dead, and before the Moon King turns them all into Moon Pies?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Brenda Vaccaro, whom I didn’t know was still alive, is the funniest, pluckiest dowager in the village. George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Mortal Kombat‘s Shang Tsung!) are random villagers with two or three lines apiece. Maybe they’ll have larger roles if some basic cable channel ever greenlights a Kubo animated series.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? The most touching scenes are all in Act 1 when Kubo gingerly tends to his mom’s needs. Her moments of lucidity come and go, slipping from smiles to flat stares and back again within seconds. Mom’s a woman who’s been through a lot in her lifetime, some of it catching up with her sooner rather than later. Whether she’s enduring some form of Alzheimer’s or some side effects from the battles in her life, we’re not meant to know. But Kubo is there for her with a wisdom and a patience beyond his years.
Beyond the ensuing standard Hero’s Quest and the expected “Good > Evil” clashes that never go out of style in my entertainment guide, nearly all the conflict arises in one fashion or another from within the family — Kubo’s mysteriously missing father, the disparate temperaments of Mom and her homicidal Sisters, the petty squabbles between Monkey and Beetle, the Moon King’s sinister interest in them all, and so on. In this universe, family is an important concept, but schisms occur that no amount of forgiveness will overcome until and unless true growth or drastic change occurs. That’s especially critical when an older relative admits to having designs that will benefit only them while dooming others.
From an oblique angle, I see a tempting way to take a hard right turn into a political digression, but I’ll just leave that parallel over on an end table for now.
Nitpicking? The Hero’s Quest aspect was so straightforward that I was lightly irked by online commentators who saw it opening weekend and called it “totally original”, which I took to mean “unusual plot structure” when in fact they apparently meant they were flabbergasted that it’s still legal in Hollywood to produce such a strong work of art that’s not an adaptation or reboot of a previously existing comic book, YA novel, Disney film, Broadway musical, lost Miyazaki script, ’80s film, or toy line. The animators at Laika came up with their own thing and ran with it. I’m not knocking that, just other fans’ word choices.
Also, once we learned Monkey’s deep, dark secret, Beetle’s took me approximately fifteen seconds to suss.
So what’s to like? That rich, stupendous stop-motion animation. Kubo‘s expansive panoramas, intricate settings, and dynamic fight sequences — some in midair, some on the animated seas — would be a mighty feat if they were 100% CG. While computers added details around the edges, it’s staggering to contemplate how much of the film was painstakingly handcrafted in miniature and tediously yet lovingly shot frame-by-frame over the course of years. It’s a wonder the animators had the mental stamina to pursue this undertaking without cracking under pressure and setting things on fire.
Such artistry would be too easy to dismiss if its center were hollow, but we’re quickly drawn in by that precocious, tenacious Kubo and his connections to each of his A-list supporting castmates. (Theron and McConaughey should bicker more often.) Kubo flows with the confidence of an established, venerable fable, but crackles with youthful energy. If you have or know kids who’d love a rousing adventure without bathroom humor or heroes punching heroes in the face, Kubo should be their jam.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: no, there’s no scene after the very end of the Kubo and the Two Strings end credits, but If you can hold on till after the initial wave of scrolling names, the B-roll animation behind them makes way for a live-action, time-lapse recording of the construction of possibly the largest monster in stop-motion animation history, an eighteen-foot, sword-filled skeleton puppet that Our Heroes face down in one of their toughest battles. At the very least, its creators and builders deserve tickets to one of those offscreen Oscar banquets where they can pick up a nice set of sci-tech statuettes to take home.