While My Guitar Gently Weeps: Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) - Reviewed

The most memorable children's tales are the ones that are a mixture of light and darkness. Without a sense of real peril, it doesn't ring true and kids are much more astute than grownups give them credit for. They understand (at least on a basic level) grief, loss, regret and danger. On the other hand, they comprehend love, bravery and compassion. These are innate feelings and concepts that we as human beings absorb from our environment as we interact with it. This is why Kubo and the Two Strings is such a special and touching animated film. It respects children's agency and intelligence while at the same time charming and intriguing them.

Kubo and the Two Strings is director Travis Knight's debut film, but he has been working in animation for over a decade. It's apparent that he is in tune with what makes animation enjoyable and riveting for children and adults alike. The original story follows the adventures of a one-eyed Japanese boy named Kubo who has the power to control paper origami figures with his enchanted guitar, specifically a shamisen  (which is Japanese for "three strings"). While it is an new tale, it definitely takes notes from other classic Japanese parables and I found it to have some qualities in common with some of Hayao Miyazaki's grimmer fare such as Princess Mononoke (1997). Like fairy tales of old, Kubo faces many adversaries some of which want to see him dead. The sense of urgency is palpable and while this movie isn't overly violent, it doesn't pull its punches when it needs to depict an event that has a unpleasant outcome.

The animation in Kubo is a mixture of stop-motion and CGI with the characters and the action being mostly the former and the backgrounds and the environments being the latter (with some practical work thrown in). It's absolutely gorgeous looking on every level and took my breath away several times. The fact that actual human hands shape and guide each movement gives everything an "organic" quality that cannot be matched by CGI alone and the subtle facial expressions convey an amazing array of complex emotions. Kubo's power over paper is such a clever way to give the animators something fun and joyful to work with, and I loved the contrast of the angular and geometric-looking figures with the rustic and soft characters. I am incredibly glad that this animation technique is being preserved and still used in an era of CGI.

I found the narrative to be a tiny bit predictable, especially in the transition to the third act. Ultimately though, this is a small quibble as the writing is outstanding with equal touches of humor and pathos. This is a film that is allowed to be sad and more importantly to remain sad. It seems like a lot of animated films are afraid to be bittersweet and always have everything wrapped up in a nice little bow at the end. There is more impact when a child is able to see that even when life goes wrong that you can prevail and continue on with spreading your happiness to others. Kubo and the Two Strings avoids the generic Disney idea of good and evil by showing some empathy and compassion for the main villain--this is extremely rare. 

I smell something stinnnnnky. 

Dario Marianelli's (Atonement, V for Vendetta) music score is absolutely gorgeous and incorporates traditional Japanese guitar playing in a novel way. Every twang and pluck on Kubo's shamisen has an effect on the paper he manipulates and it's composed and played beautifully. The voice acting from everyone involved is excellent as well and I particularly enjoyed Charlize Theron's performance as Kubo's simian bodyguard. 

This film is a must-see for animation fans and worth going to the theater to check out. We need to support more creative and original content like this so that we can show Hollywood that movies like this are viable! Take your kids (or just yourself) to see Kubo and the Two Strings!

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-Michelle Kisner