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Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Composed by Dario Marianelli
  • Warner Bros. / 2016 / 53m

A stop-motion animated fantasy, Kubo and the Two Strings is set in ancient Japan and follows the adventures of a young boy who is transported into a magical world after he stays out too late at night.  (Whenever I’ve stayed out too late at night I’ve usually ended up with a banging headache the next morning – a much less magical world.)  14-year-old Art Parkinson lends his voice to Kubo, with support from Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey and Ralph Fiennes amongst others.

The film comes from the Laika studio, whose previous production was The Boxtrolls, which received a decent score from Dario Marianelli.  He returns for Kubo with an even finer (though very different) one.  A dramatic ebb-and-flow from the strings introduces the score in “The Impossible Waves”, soon joined by striking brass and then a rousing theme which could be from a gothic horror film (and could have been written by Christopher Young).  It’s stirring stuff and the perfect start, indicating that this is going to be a fine piece of entertainment.

Dario Marianelli

Dario Marianelli

The orchestra was joined by Japanese colours in that opening cue and they are even more apparent in the subsequent “Kubo Goes to Town”, delightfully playful and vivid.  Then in “Story Time” what I assume is a koto is joined by an array of percussion (and the western strings), belting out a terrific melody dripping with fantasy and adventure.  A change of pace in “Ancestors” sees a warm theme introduced, which sandwiches a bit of a swell from the strings between elegant, eloquent opening and closing sections – it’s full of nostalgia and really very lovely.

“Meet the Sisters!” sees things take a darker turn, intricate percussion soon being taken over by full-on action music, the brassy outbursts being joined by fascinating little flourishes for strings and winds (the orchestration is top-notch).  The tone is so much darker than what’s gone before but it seems to grow organically from it – the dramatic flow is done beautifully – and so there’s no jarring jolt, nor when we go back to the playful fantasy in “Origami Birds”.  It’s mickey-mousey, but the best (and most difficult) kind – done musically, with flair and a delightfully light touch.

There’s a welcome return to the dynamic action in “The Giant Skeleton”, again orchestrated to the hilt with so much going on, but the most important thing is just how much fun it is.  When the heroic main theme emerges midway through the track, it’s a really great moment.  The same theme is given a completely different guise at the start of “The Leafy Galleon”, the flavour fully Japanese now, but the action theme returns near the end (in a much more subdued form) and is a sign that the thrills are about to come back, which they duly do in “Above and Below” which has the sound of a classic nautical encounter for a while before the percussion section explodes and the crisp brass phrases start being built on top of each other – it’s excellent stuff.

“The Galleon Restored” is the album’s briefest cue at barely a minute, but even in it Marianelli manages to find something interesting to say, with the main theme being given one of its warmest airings.  The warmth continues – with returning nostalgia – in “Monkey’s Story”, full of feeling and emotion; I just love the subtle choir which adds so much to the cue’s final moments.  “Hanzo’s Fortress” ushers in a lengthy sequence which makes up the finale – it includes a lovely take on the theme which dominates the cue before the choir’s back, this time adding a real sense of sadness for the first time really on the album.

“United – Divided” is really stirring, dramatic music – it’s serious stuff, full of feeling and in its second half really exciting.  The longest cue on the album is “Showdown with Grandfather”, which takes a minute or two to warm up and then really pounces, going through the score’s full range of action and emotion.  There’s still time for one last short piece of score, the piano-led “Rebirth”, which is charming and rousing in equal measure, and then finally we arrive at what you’d think was the only piece of music on the album if you believed the Amazon reviews and the PR material, a Regina Spektor cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” which I have to say really is superb, arranged perfectly to fit in the musical world of Marianelli’s score.

I suppose it’s more than a little facile to describe Kubo and the Two Strings as being like a Japanese version of Kung-Fu Panda.  As regular readers will know only too well, I am nothing if not facile and so that’s exactly how I’ll describe it.  It’s less overtly comic but does have a tremendous lightness of touch apart from in its most dramatic pieces of action, which is a really big attraction.  There is an elegance to most of it which is typical of the composer, but it is largely written in a style which certainly isn’t.  It’s so nice to hear Marianelli have such fun in a score and the tightly-produced album hasn’t a dull moment.  One of the year’s best so far, without a doubt.

Rating: ****

See also:
The Boxtrolls Dario Marianelli | |

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  1. Momo (Reply) on Sunday 4 September, 2016 at 15:58

    Just wanted to chime in and say that this soundtrack works better in its film than any I’ve heard in a long time. In addition, the movie features a lot of soft, gorgeous East-Asian-flavored material that is really only superficially represented on the album, which I was disappointed by 🙁

    But for the most part, I thought it was a tremendous effort!