After finally seen it, I have to admit how much I regret passing up “Kubo and the Two Strings” the minute it arrived to theaters. Laika Studios deserves better attention for how impressive their stop-motion animated features are. Even more unique is how they are made for the budget of a simple $60 million. A movie like this almost appears more than that. And yet, much was well spent with great characters, a powerful story and an overall movie-going experience that swept me away. In a sense, I’m tempted to put this on my list of all-time favorite movies. But perhaps, it will in due time once its greatness is more recognized (I’m looking at you Oscars.) I would go as far to say its a great anime (seeing its set in ancient Japan) considering the style and tone does feel like one.
The character of Kubo is highly identifiable. Not because he is a kid, but how imaginative and caring he can be. It’s about as realistic as a typical kid with innocence can get. In the first part of the movie, we get an idea of his surroundings and his limits. How protective he is others and how creative he can be. Gifted with a magic shamisen, Kubo uses this to bring origami to life and tell stories to the local village. A clever way to set up the remainder of the story as Kubo can draft heroic characters and monsters, but sadly stuck on an ending.
His life changes when two witches are after him and has to find three pieces of armor to save him and those around him. Accompanying his journey is a no-nonsense Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a cursed samurai warrior trapped as a humanoid beetle (Matthew McConaughey). And let me tell you, I loved these characters and greatly cared for them. I loved how the Monkey was motherly at times, but knew when to be a fighter and protector. I adored Beetle and how he could provide comic relief for his bad memory as well as his heroic attempts. When one of them was in danger (especially little Kubo), there was a sense of danger and risk that we might loose these heroes. And that’s what I found more intriguing compared to the other summer films this year; there was a sense of care for our characters.
Again, I feel tormented I didn’t see this one sooner to really appreciate its beauty. Watching this was like “Wolf Children,” a movie about growing up and learning its difficulties along the way. To know when to let go and find your place in the universe. That to me is really what this movie was in a nutshell, but more. The lesson at the end is to make your own story and live it. Telling legends are good, but don’t forget to live your tale to the fullest. And even when it ends, those who heard it will remember your story and how important it can be. Few movies this year are able to convey such a heavy message in a unique way.
Thus at the end, I found myself in tears. Tears at the beauty of the animation and the way it concludes. Sometimes, you don’t need a big epic fight to bookend your movie. And that’s something missing from most good vs. evil tales. Without spoiling HOW it ends, violence can defend, but it can’t serve a happy ending in this kind of world. And they way this “alternative” was offered was so powerful and emotional that I had a hard time holding back every tear.
The only thing I do have to nitpick is the use of CGI. To its credit, there are times when it blends perfectly into the environment and obviously animating water in a stop-motion flick is near to impossible. Sometimes the CGI effects can stick out while other times it can blend seamlessly into this colorful world. I even found myself marveling at certain sets and blades of grass wondering what was really there and what was digital. Not to mention there is a great amount of effort and creativity in things like a giant skeleton (which is a big puppet as shown during the end credits) and an array of monsters. Each one feels like they were taken from Japansese folklore in design and poetic movement.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is a movie I can’t recommend enough. It’s up there with “Coraline” as my favorite film from Laika. There is action, humor and plenty of heart. Not a single frame feels wasted and everything feels perfectly paced. The dark moments feel earned, the quiet moments are put in the right spots and when it gets theoretical about topics like death and what lies beyond, it’s executed in a way that is subtle and executable. So much that even little kids won’t have a hard time with the some of the harsher elements because they will be assured their story will live on even at the end. But it breaks my heart to see not many have given this one the love and respect it deserves at the box-office. I beg of you, see this on the big screen. Because if you blink out on this one, you will miss out on a powerful experience.
“Wolf Children” is very much a movie that proves what is missing in today’s animated venues. Not just originality but subtly placed messages of deeper meaning. On the surface, it seems like a typical “coming of age” story but that’s only scrapping the surface. I’d go as far to say its more compelling and dynamic than “My Neighbor Tortoro” or if not, at least on par with its mystical wonder and multiple morals that can give viewers their own interpretation of what this movie is about and what its trying to say. But yet, it all connects and gives something everyone wants in the end.
The story concerns a young college student named Hana who falls in love with a new student. But when he tells her the secret that he is a werewolf, she looks past the fur and fangs and sees him as who he is; someone to love. No sooner they have two children and upon unfortunate fate, her lover gets killed while giving into his animal instincts. Leaving behind their two kids who can shape shift into wolves at any given will, Hana finds that being a mother to her strange children is not easy at it appears. But with a bit of luck, she stays every step of the way to make sure they are given the care and love of a mother but then things get harder when they have to learn exactly who they truly are and how they fit in the world.
I should probably talk about the small elephant in the room at this point. Some might be turned off by the questionable nature of “Wolf Children” as the main character develops a son and daughter with a half-human/half-wolf. However, this is only for the first 15 minutes of the movie and if you can get past that, things really get rolling when Hana has to deal with how to raise her canine children. This element didn’t bother me that much seeing this is a Japanese anime and I took it as more of a modern day fair tale as well as the popular mythos of werewolves and kitsune tales. But I probably should address some viewers might take this as a form of bestiality and I can see why. But they never show anything explicit or heavily imply seeing Hana’s lover can form between human and wolf. Some sensitives might be bothered by this so this is just a fair warning.
But after that, the story becomes a cross between a coming of age fable and one about motherhood as well. Hana’s kids Yuki and Ame have some interesting scenes that range from basic cuteness to elements never questioned in some animated films. Like the idea of finding where you truly belong or how to accept what you are and try to balance that. Or even the choice being what you want while struggling against what others think. Yeah, these are elements done before like in Disney’s The Little Mermaid but I feel they are executed better here. It knows when to have its cute and moments of awe before delving into dramatic tension.
On such example is Ame wondering what he should be in life. At first he is unsure but he grows an appreciation of the forest more than living a normal life. This works best because we see development of that choice over time. At first, Ame is frightened of the wide world and its things but then begins to understand the value of nature so well that he wants to live in it. Even his sister Yuki starts to understand the hardships of trying to be normal as she tries to hide her secret from classmates and even the new kid who seems suspicious of her odd actions like avoiding him at every angle. Yuki wants to be a person but knows her animal instincts can be dangerous or even risk relationships with her friends. So is it best to chose the life of an animal or the life of a person? “Wolf Children” brings this in different perspectives with Ame trying to break from his life with people to be more of a wolf while Yuki wants to distance her animal life to be a normal person. Never have a seen a movie that presents this perspective in two different ways. And considering we spend so much time with their progression from child to adult, we feel like we want to see them make the right choice they feel best fits them in the end.
But what holds this movie together is their mother Hana. We see her difficulties trying to raise her unique kids while also trying to be a mother they can depend on. One notable scene is when Yuki gets ill and she has a hard time deciding if she should consult the hospital or the vets for help. Its a humorous but very smart scene. Hana doesn’t treat her kids like the animals they can transform into but there are times when she questions the appropriate time to raise them like children and sometimes like a zoologist. Regardless, she sees them as her own despite the fur and fangs. I was even surprised to see how far she would go to protect her kids from the dangers of the world and even give them the life they deserve. Even in the final 30 minutes, she puts her own life on the line. I won’t say how but its a gripping and intense climax that ends satisfying but yet sad at the same time.
The animation in the first half didn’t feel that spectacular to me until the later scenes when Hana moves to the countryside. At that point, it starts to show what it can do removing itself from flat urban designs to beautiful forest backgrounds. The highlight of the movie is the three chasing each other in the snow as the kids delight in having fun for the first time in the winter season as their mother tries to catch up with them. Even through there is little to no shading on the characters or even things like snow, it still feels amazing. Even the score by Takagi Masakatsu powerfully complements the scene with a piece that is fast and powerful but yet has the whimsical charm of John Williams. In fact, the score of this movie is so well done that I’m nearly close to finding a copy of it to listen to. It is that good and rare has there been a musical score to give me joy and goosebumps at the same time while knowing when to play it dramatic and subtle.
And that’s the key word here; subtle. On paper, “Wolf Children” sounds like it has elements that may either turn off viewers or even make them feel its a typical picture with the usual cliches of prejudice and knowing your place. But yet, it goes deeper than that. We get well developed characters, spell-bounding sequences that feel like art pieces coming to life and by the end you feel like Hana did her job well as a mother as both kids go off to become what they truly wish. At the end of the day, you will get something satisfying but yet moving at the same time. Its unlike any anime I’ve seen to date that successfully blends the elements of a fairy tale and realistic elements. Never have I seen a story about the importance of growing up and when its time to let your kids know what is right for them. If you look pass the elements of werewolves and some of its questionable content, there is a truly remarkable picture here that will leave you breathless.