By the end of the year, there will most likely be at least three American animated films on my Best Films of 2016 list. "Finding Dory," "Sausage Party," "Kung Fu Panda 3," "Zootopia" and now "Kubo and the Two Strings" have all been wonderfully entertaining works—and we still have a few more probable greats to look forward to. "Storks," "Sing" and "Moana" all have a pretty good chance of being better than average, rendering 2016 one of the best years for animation in quite some time.
"Kubo and the Two Strings" will probably be the least recognized of that list, and it's a shame. There are many reasons why the film won't do very well, like the trailers not shedding much light on what the movie is about, and the film-specific title that doesn't make much sense until you've seen it.
Another interesting aspect is the (mild) whitewashing controversy in which a movie that's set in ancient Japan has a voice cast led by Rickon Stark, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara and Matthew McConaughey. They all do exceptional voice work, but when the Asian actors are only playing villagers and extras, it's a little problematic. This shouldn't be laid at the feet of the director or cast, but in a studio system in which the nationalities of who you cast depend on the size of the budget available. Indeed, diversity in film is an issue that can only truly be addressed from the top down.
"Kubo" tells the story of the titular character, a young, one-eyed boy who lives with his brain-damaged mother in a cave atop a giant mountain overlooking the ocean. Kubo and his mother are hiding from her deranged father and two sisters, who want to take his remaining eye and turn him into an unfeeling demon god. The main rule he must follow is to never be outside after dark or else his wicked family will instantly be able to find him.
Since Kubo is a child, he stupidly stays out after dark and is spotted by his demonic twin aunts, who destroy his village and send him on the run with a sword-fighting monkey, a tiny origami warrior and a samurai beetle. They protect Kubo as he quests for the mythical armor of his long-dead father, which will help protect him from his evil relatives.
If all of that sounds pretty dark and twisted, it most certainly is. "Kubo" is the new film from Laika, the Hillsboro-based animation studio that released "Coraline," "Paranorman" and "BoxTrolls," which all have a uniquely dark vibe and tone of their own. Laika has single-handedly proved that stop-motion animation is still a vibrant and stunning medium to work with, and their small body of work is almost unmatched (outside of Disney/Pixar) in the animation game.
"Kubo and the Two Strings" is a deeply melancholy fable that might be a little heavy for the younger children, but people of all ages should find something to treasure from this one-of-a-kind gem. Something as strangely beautiful and original failing in the box office speaks to our failure as film consumers. Let's Keep Portland Animation Weird, people.
"Kubo and the Two Strings"
Dir. Travis Knight
Now playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX