Guitar hero will tug at your heartstrings
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (PG)
102 minutes / Fantasy adventure / Opens today
Kubo is a one-eyed, 12-year-old boy who makes a living
regaling the villagers of his seaside town with the tall tales of Hanzo,
a mythical warrior.
When he encounters a vengeful spirit from his past and two kabuki-masked witches, he learns that the legends are real and that he must embark on an epic journey to find three powerful items which belonged to Hanzo, before his enemies take his remaining eye.
ANIMATION has, for far too long, been wrongly labelled as a genre (it is a medium of many genres like comedy, action and romance) and unfairly dismissed as frivolous entertainment for children, at least by mainstream audiences and some film critics.
This contempt is partly due to most American animation studios churning out shallow fare with brand recognition, dated pop-culture references and celebrity voice casting.
So it is exhilarating when a thoughtful, magnificent gem like Kubo is birthed from a United States studio, this one being Laika, a small Oregon outfit with fewer than 400 employees as of last year.
Kubo's plot is filled with twists and revelations, so the less you know going in, the more pleasantly surprised you will be.
Here is a rip-roaring fable that can be enjoyed by kids and kids-at-heart for its action spectacles and larger-than-life heroes and villains.
Adults might appreciate its aesthetic inspirations from stop-motion artist Ray Harryhausen and late Japanese artists Katsushika Hokusai and Kiyoshi Saito, as well as its mature themes of compassion, loss and forgiveness.
Much like Pixar's The Good Dinosaur (2015) and Laika's previous films, Kubo doesn't shy away from death and the macabre.
This is a glorious return to Don Bluth's dark films like The Secret Of NIMH (1982) and The Land Before Time (1988), as well as early-millennium fantasy odysseys such as Treasure Planet (2002) and Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas (2003).
It is ironically to the film's detriment that its 1hr 42min runtime feels short, because the quest itself doesn't begin for a while and the world that Laika conjures is so wondrous that it begs to be explored in greater detail.
Director and Laika chief executive Travis Knight counts himself as a fan of Japanese film-makers Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa's works, as well as the seminal manga series Lone Wolf And Cub.
His depiction of a fantastical Japan is done with historical and cultural sensitivity, barring a few missteps like a character scowling at Kubo for slurping his soup, an act which is actually considered polite.
Kubo is also a relentlessly captivating film, even during the quieter moments.
There are nice banter and character development between Kubo (Game Of Thrones' Art Parkinson) and the three companions on his adventure: Monkey (Charlize Theron), a no-nonsense snow monkey and my favourite character; Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a quixotic but exceptionally competent samurai; and a silent, living origami figure of Hanzo.
The film has been accused of whitewashing - where white actors play non-white characters - and sadly these claims are not unfounded, considering all the main characters are Japanese and voiced by Caucasians.
The few Asian actors who do lend their voices - like Star Trek's George Takei (his character utters the actor's catchphrase) and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa of Mortal Kombat (1995) - are relegated to bit roles.
Nevertheless, this is a cinematic masterpiece featuring unforgettable characters, a stirring story that can be enjoyed on many levels by the young and old, and heartrending music (the end credit song, a cover of The Beatles' While My Guitar Gently Weeps by Regina Spektor, was a very apt choice).
It is sobering to note that Laika's last three films - Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012) and The Boxtrolls (2014) - were nominated for the tokenistic Academy Award for Best Animated Feature but lost to Up, Brave and Big Hero 6 respectively, all purely CGI films by industry juggernauts Pixar and Disney.
Furthermore, Kubo - made for US$60 million (S$81 million) - had the studio's weakest opening weekend stateside, debuting at fourth place with US$12.6 million.
Like the film's titular, shamisen-playing hero, Laika is up against formidable odds.
While the boutique studio still painstakingly creates hand-crafted puppets and animatronic models for its films (Kubo took five years to make with 80 unique sets), its bigger rivals spit out sequels and merchandise tie-ins which continue to be rewarded at the cineplex.
I sincerely hope audiences here will give this underdog's box-office tale a happy ending, so that Laika can continue telling beautiful, original stories for years to come.