Kubo and the Two Strings is probably the best Laika film to date (Coraline unseen), and undoubtedly the best animated film of 2016 in the way it combines superlative stop-motion with an engaging, thoughtful story about a boy’s quest to honour his family through storytelling, memorialisation, and selfless courage. Everything comes together so well, and I was enamoured with the emotional currents just as much as with the visual ones. The voice acting is also top-notch, with Charlize Theron slaying as Kubo’s guardian monkey, and Rooney Mara sounding so damn evil as Kubo’s terrifying aunts. Matthew McConaughey is also heartwarming as a beetle samurai (or samurai beetle), though as soon as I heard his voice it was hard getting his face out of my head. But the film wouldn’t have worked half so well with an underwhelming lead, so kudos to Art Parkinson for being such a wonderful Kubo. He’s so convincing here that you would never guess for a moment that he’s Irish in real life (I didn’t).
I kept this at four stars because of the climax, which felt derivative of other stories that end with a group of people standing in solidarity against the evildoer (even if this one added lantern spirits to the mix). With the first two acts soaring due to their originality, the last one descended into unwelcome familiarity, which is too bad, since it could’ve taken a different route. Though I did appreciate that the ending was not “happy” per se, which is a bold enough move for a children’s film. Also… it is a bit sad that a film about Japanese characters was voiced by a predominantly Western cast. Instead of contributing to controversies about whitewashing, this could have easily escaped them. Yet the cast is still so great that I can’t be entirely condemnatory, either. If Laika ventures into different cultural milieus again, I hope they will be more considerate.