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Friday, December 9, 2016

Blu-ray Review: #KuboandTheTwo Strings

The absolutely stunning Kubo and the Two Strings is a powerful home video experience, but loses us in its uneven storytelling.

Review by Matt Cummings

If 2016 has proven one thing, it's that the chasm of truly terrible film has never been larger. It's as if mainstream Hollywood dug itself a hole under the false impression that crap sells merely because their marketing acumen relieves all ills. So when a modestly-disappointing film arrives, we're almost ready to award it something for not failing. That's the case with Universal's Kubo and the Two Strings, an amazing visual experience surrounded by a story that almost gets it right. The home release fares much better, delivering superior audio and video, as well as a satisfying set of extras.

The Movie - 3.5/5
Having been saved by his mother (voiced by Charlize Theron) from the grips of his evil twin aunts and grandfather, Kubo (Art Patkinson) has grown up with an amazing magical talent: he can manipulate colorful paper into figures that allow him to tell deeply-involved bedtime stories. He performs to the delight of the local town, but never sticks around to accept their hospitality. You see, his aunts can track his whereabouts in the darkness, which soon sees them attack him and set the town on fire. He wakes up to learn that his mother is gone, having imbued his favorite toy with magic properties who in turn implores him to seek revenge. Wearing the robe of his murdered father, Kubo embarks on a mission to recover his father's armor, hoping to defeat his mortal enemy before they can claim his other eye. Along the way, he'll meet Monkey (also voiced by Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), both of whom offer critical insights into his past.

If Kubo could be judged by the first two acts, its win for Best Animated Film would have been assured. Intensely gratifying due to its unique structure (think of an even darker version of Pixar's Up), Kubo sets its early sights high and achieves nothing short of wonder. With so little actual storytelling presented, we learn of the mother's special powers and how her dark past has led Kubo to this point, a moment in which we grieve over his emotionally-broken mother like she might our own. As Kubo assembles his rather rag-tag team, we're granted moments of beautifully-constructed character development that make the normal animated film feel almost childish in their presentation. Kubo and the Two Strings has a lot to say about family and loss, and it's almost a heart beaker to see the boy's world so ripped apart.

But then the third act arrives, and our beautiful little stop-motion animated classic-in-the-making begins to unravel. Without giving too much away, we're treated to some of the cheapest story resolutions available, from rushed revelations about family to serious breakdowns in the story itself. The journey to secure his father's armor and sword are handled with the least care possible, making their acquisition seem like anyone could do it rather than a real and dangerous effort. When death arrives to claim Kubo's friends, the revelation of their true identities is handled so quickly that we barely have enough time to react. The climactic battle with Kubo's grandfather (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) is also resolved with lightning efficiency, as if Writers Marc Haimes and Chris Butler took on different acts without actually wondering what the other was writing. The result is a film with enormous possibility that ultimately fails to maintain its identity.

One thing that cannot be denied is the stunning stop-motion and direction by Thomas Knight. We haven't seen a film of this type in decades, and it's certainly a sight to behold. This is Wallace and Grommit on mushrooms, boasting a visual experience that must be seen to be appreciated. Based on the platform you have at home, Kubo and The Two Strings will either merely shine or absolutely floor you with its deep color palette and crystal-clear details. More about those later. But a film is more than mere visuals, which makes this one both a mesmerizing experience and a disappointing one. The MPAA might disagree, which will no doubt lead to an interesting Oscar race for Best Animated Film. But see this one for yourself, if for nothing else than to see the re-emergence of Stop-Motion and the way Eastern film-making sensibilities can be fused into American animated fare.

The Video - 5/5
Kubo and The Two Strings is lovingly presented by Universal Studios as in a gorgeous MPEG-4/AVC transfer that immediately establishes itself as one of the best transfers of the year. Clarity is simply stunning, as every element of the Stop-Motion pops with both definition and volume. Rich details prevails from Monkey's fur to Kubo's hair; fabrics and other man-made elements also shine, such as Beetle's dinged-up armor, aged sword hilts, and ship made of leaves. Outdoor settings like water look real here, showing off the depth of the ocean as Kubo's team struggles during a violent storm. Colors are pitched a tad towards saturated like The Secret Life of Pets, it never distracts from the experience. Colors never bleed, allowing those sharp details to emerge in every scene. Blacks and shadows thrive here, such as those scenes in the forest in Act One and in the climatic battle sequence at the father's wrecked home. There's zero crush, aliasing, or banding, leaving us with one of the more beautiful prints we've seen this year. We've spoken many times of Universal's acumen, and with only one failure this year we're still inclined to award it high marks for this visual masterpiece.

The Audio - 5/5
Kubo and The Two Strings impresses with a rich and boisterous DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Having said that, I do hope you will experience this on a proper surround platform, because the effect on a soundbar only scratches the surface. The way Universal wraps us in this world is extraordinary, starting with the rears that boast ocean noise, wind, raindrops, and other elements. From it, we get an aural sense of this world as a very real place. The forwards deliver strong elements of music, sound effects, and some chatter, but do their best to layer those sounds rather than assault us. That was my big takeaway when I first heard it on my soundbar. The center channel shines as Universal takes the time to actually separate the dialogue as opposed to merely bumping it up over other effects, reminding us why they are still kings of the audio transfer. The fabulously-aggressive LFE bumps, bangs, and thumps its way almost from the beginning, leaving me no choice but to award it top marks. Simply put, it's reference quality and a winner in every way.

The Supplements - 4.5/5
Universal's Kubo and The Two Strings offers two very strong features that alone are worth this score. Not only are we gifted with a competent and informative commentary by Director Thomas Knight, but we also get an appealing six-part feature called Kubo's Journey (1080p), which is presented in HD. Corners of the Earth (3:12) is a quick look into the film's structure as well as the people required to make a movie of this scope. The Myth of Kubo (2:33) digs deeper into the themes hidden below the general adventure plot.

Our evaluation copy arrived as a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack. The slipcase is colorful and attractive, but there is no interior artwork. At the time of this post, three versions were offered: a 2D package, a 3D alternate cover, and a four-disc anthology that sports Laika Entertainment's Coraline, The Boxtrolls, and Paranorman. Both the 2D and 3D offer a voucher for a Digital HD Copy. I hope Laika will eventually release a US steelbook, but for now these three versions should satisfy.

The Bottom Line - 4/5
Boasting an overall exceptional home release, Universal's Kubo and The Two Strings also suffers from a frustrating ending that reduces its early brilliance. The Stop-Motion team lead by Knight produces a gorgeous movie, which the Blu-ray brings out in every way. This film is ready for 4k, even if recent opinions consider the format to be DOA. Kubo will most likely join other contenders such as The Secret Life of Pets, Finding Dory, and Zootopia for top animated film of 2016, but its chances of actually winning depend on whether MPAA members can look past the story problems to consider its amazing technical merits. When viewed through those lenses, it's a satisfying hit, sporting perhaps the best audio and video transfers for an animated film this year, along with a solid and satisfying set of extras. Recommended.

Kuno and The Two Strings is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril and has a runtime of 101 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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