Review by Bob Ignizio
Fleeing from his vengeful grandfather, the one-eyed boy Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) and his mother wash up on an island. There he makes a living by telling stories in a nearby village. As Kubo tells his tales, he plays a traditional Japanese stringed instrument whose music brings origami figures to life to act out his words. The only problem is Kubo can't ever seem to finish his tales. Still, the villagers keep coming back for more, anyway.
Meanwhile, Kubo's mother lays in a semi catatonic state all day, becoming somewhat more aware and energetic in the evening. She warns Kubo to always be back by nightfall, but of course one day he ignores this advice and finds himself being chased by a pair of evil spirits that turn out to be his Aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara). They've been sent by Kubo's grandfather, the Moon King (voice of Ralph Fiennes), to bring the boy back. But it's not just a family reunion the Moon King wants; he also has designs on Kubo's other eye.
As Kubo goes on the run, he finds help from two unusual allies: Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron), a wooden charm come to life, and Beetle (voice of Matthew McConaughey), a samurai warrior transformed into an insect with short term memory issues. It appears their only hope is to find all the pieces of a suit of magic armor once worn by Kubo's father, but the real answer may lie elsewhere.
Directed by Travis Knight (making his directorial debut) from a screenplay by Mark Haines and Chris Butler, KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is definitely geared toward a slightly older audience that the average kid flick - say 8 years and up. It doesn't shy away from sadness or complexity. And despite a fair amount of action and (PG level) violence, the film's ultimate message is that compassion and forgiveness are more effective than violence. I don't want to get into spoiler territory, but at times I was reminded of BOOK OF LIFE, and how that film's protagonist showed that a musical instrument and a true heart could be just as powerful as any weapon.
If there's one gripe I have with the movie, it's in the voice casting. Don't get me wrong, no one does a bad job here. It's just another case of Hollywood whitewashing. Call me a whiny liberal if you want, but it's kind of ridiculous to have George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa providing the voices for small supporting roles, thus showing that the producers were, in fact, aware that Japanese voice actors do exist, while all the lead roles are voiced by Caucasians. Seriously, why couldn't Takei at least have been given the meaty role of The Moon King? Would swapping him with Fiennes really have hurt the film's box office prospects that much?
No, I'm not calling for a boycott or anything. I think you should go see the movie. But it's pretty ridiculous that, in this day and age, a movie centered on Japanese culture in which all the characters are Japanese would still give all the lead roles to white people. It may not be as obvious or offensive as Mickey Rooney doing yellow face in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, but it's still not right. 3 out of 4 stars.