Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

After a summer of remakes, it’s refreshing to see an original story. Kubo and the Two Strings is the latest stop-motion film by LAIKA.  Kubo is also the directorial debut of Travis Knight, LAIKA’s CEO, who served as lead animator and producer on other LAIKA productions.  Kubo and the Two Strings is based on Japanese folklore and mythology but is not a retelling of a specific legend. The studio hired a Japanese cultural consultant to work closely with them during production.

I had the pleasure of an early press screening of this movie in LA. The movie is delightful – an epic adventure against gorgeous backdrops and featuring Regina Spektor’s amazing cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.  It’s a song that would ordinarily seem jarring in a movie set entirely in the past, but it works here. Knight cited both Ray Harryhausen and Akira Kurosawa (among many others) as influences.

Monkey and Kubo
Monkey (voiced by Academy Award winner Charlize Theron) situates herself protectively alongside Kubo (Art Parkinson) in animation Studio LAIKA’s epic action-adventure ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ a Focus Features release. Credit: Laika Studios/Focus Features

Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson of Game of Thrones fame) is a one-eyed young storyteller with the magical ability to animate origami figures by playing his shamisen, a three-stringed instrument similar to a guitar. By day, Kubo busks in the nearby village by telling the story of a samurai warrior and his quest to defeat the Moon King. He never quite finishes his story because he must rush back to hide with his mother in a cave before nightfall.

During the village lantern festival, Kubo’s desire to connect with his deceased father gets the better of him, and he stays out past nightfall. This is when Kubo’s quest begins. He’s taken away from the village and transported to an unfamiliar new place. Aided by a snarky monkey (Charlize Theron) and a large, goofy beetle (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo battles powerful monsters and learns about his own mysterious past.

Although this is a family movie, it does involve swordplay with injuries and death, and some of the monsters may be too intense for small children. It’s reasonably earned a PG rating. However, those able to handle the intensity will appreciate that this is not a movie that panders to kids by fulfilling all their desires and avoiding emotionally unpleasant situations.

Ultimately, Kubo is a story about storytelling, family, sacrifice, and courage. It’s also a story that will benefit from repeat viewing. Kubo and the Two Strings opens on August 19th.

Marziah Karch lives in Portland, Oregon and is the author of multiple books and magazine articles. She also writes for Lifewire and GlitterSquid. She's currently a doctoral candidate researching the information behavior of independent game designers.