There is a common refrain in some cinephile circles that the main problem with 2016’s reliance on muddy, lifeless reboots and sequels is a lack of original ideas in Hollywood. While there may be some truth to that, it does not explain the failure of the individual films themselves. Suicide Squad didn’t have to be a hypermasculine slog that wastes its fantastic performances just because it’s setting up a franchise, and Jason Bourne didn’t have to live down to all of the tropes the original series avoided because it’s a sequel. Directors David Ayer and Paul Greengrass are no slouches and they have worked very well within the studio system with their artistic integrity intact, yet they delivered two of the biggest letdowns of the year. On top of that, one of the greatest revelations of the summer, Pete’s Dragon, has been a remake.
The thing that separates this summer’s successful films from its failures isn’t originality, it’s a matter of making movies that are more invested in the nuances of canon and narrative than the ABCs of film as a medium of visual storytelling. As the wonderful Kubo and the Two Strings shows, audiences and critics alike will forgive familiar stories and occasional clichés if a film cares about how it’s made, how it looks, and remains true to the rules it’s established. The narrative of Kubo is one you’ve heard many times before—a boy with a mysterious past accompanied by two anthropomorphic magical creatures must learn the truth about his origins and overcome his uncertainty to defeat a great evil. The experience of Kubo, meanwhile, is refreshing and unique, from its setting in feudal Japan to the way its stop-motion animation gives life to its naturalistic depiction of magic and otherworldly beings.
The plot follows Kubo, a young boy who lives with his mother near a village. They occupy a cave to remain safe from Kubo’s maternal family, from whom his mother fled, but not before they stole one of Kubo’s eyes and killed his father. The mother, wounded from her escape, has difficulty with her memory and maintaining a single line of thought, so during the day, Kubo goes to town with his magical shamisen and manipulates paper into living origami to tell the story of his heroic father, the samurai.
One day, Kubo is out too late, against his mother’s orders, and is discovered by his aunts. Kubo is rescued by his mother with her last ounce of magic, but not before she dies and the village is destroyed. Kubo awakens to a talking monkey, summoned by his mother, that leads him on a quest to find the missing components of his father’s armor, enlisting the help of a cursed warrior with the body of a beetle.
The familiarity of the tale ends up being an asset to director Travis Knight, who establishes beautiful set pieces with stunningly innovative techniques. He wisely gives equal weight to the themes of the film; there are some twists scattered throughout, but even if they had all been removed or if you manage to predict every single one, the film holds together as an artistic statement about family, the transfer of sins from parent to child, worldly magic and forgiveness. Kubo and the Two Strings is a true achievement from the always dependable Laika Entertainment.
Playing this week:
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
Bad Moms, Ben Hur, Florence Foster Jenkins, Ghostbusters, Jason Bourne,Kubo and the Two Strings, Nine Lives, Pete’s Dragon, Sausage Party, The Secret Life of Pets, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad, War Dogs
Violet Crown Cinema, 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
Ben Hur, Bad Moms, Café Society, Florence Foster Jenkins, Jason Bourne, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Music of Strangers, Sausage Party, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad, War Dogs