Starring: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, Matthew McConaughey
Release Date: August 19, 2016
Of late, the best of Western animation tends to be very emotionally based, in contrast with Eastern animation’s tendency towards being deliberative and thought-provoking. Neither makes one superior to the other, but the contrast is striking when you see a movie like Kubo and the Two Strings – a film which definitely leans “Eastern” in its approach. Similar to a film like Inside Out or Finding Dory, Kubo and the Two Strings concerns the intensity of love and family. The difference is that while a Pixar film presents these concepts in terms of emotion and a swell of music, Kubo does so through careful exploration of the nature of the parent-child relationship.
Kubo is set in some timeless ancient Japanese village that sees the titular boy living in relative isolation with his sometimes-amnesiac mother. By day, Kubo (Art Parkinson)–who is missing an eye under undisclosed circumstances–works as a storyteller in the local village, using a magical lute to bring origami to life and entertain the villagers. By night, he cares for his mother (Charlize Theron), who in her moments of lucidity, tells him stories of his samurai father who he’s never met.
It’s important that Kubo return home by dark every night, as his mother warns him that his evil grandfather is ever looking for him. But the absence of Kubo’s father wears on him, and he stays out too late one evening while participating in a prayer ritual to reach his father’s spirit. It’s then that Kubo is attacked by his ghostly aunts (both played by Rooney Mara), sent by their father to reclaim him and his other eye. Kubo’s mother comes to his aid in time to send him and his lute away, and he awakens in the company of a mysterious monkey sent to guard him. The two are joined by an amnesiac Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a former samurai who knew Kubo’s father and is now cursed to live in the body of an insect. Together, they embark on a quest to find the armor of Kubo’s father and learn the dark secret of why Kubo’s grandfather is looking for him.
What’s impressive about this latest Laika-studios offering is the degree to which it stylistically distinguishes itself from much of the current animation offerings that dominate the market (although fans may recognize the style as evocative of Laika’s ealier offerings like Coraline or The Boxtrolls). At a time where CGI has replaced conventional animation, Laika opts for stop-motion, albeit with an apparent computer-enhanced overlay (the stop-motion doesn’t quite look authentic). The freedom of Laika’s style makes Kubo’s Japan a highly detailed, otherworldly environment that looks amazing when compared to the today’s standardized offerings. Much of the characterization bears a slight resemblance to the origami which Kubo uses throughout the story, and indeed, the worlds of reality and paper intentionally blur as the tale progresses.
The Eastern-style storytelling is even more apparent in Kubo’s story pattern which, perhaps intentionally, bears a heavy resemblance to a number of the Legend of Zelda games, particularly Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker. One might daresay that Kubo is the closest we’ve come to a Legend of Zelda animated film, as the story follows the game’s generalized pattern of a young boy thrown from a small world into a larger quest to assemble ancient weapons while confronting larger, deadly mystical forces. Pay attention to Kubo’s first major fight with a giant skeleton–the scene bears a hefty resemblance to any number of boss battles in the Zelda games.
But beyond the video game resemblance, Kubo bears a closer resemblance to Anime than to Disney in its deep examination of what defines a family, as opposed to simply tugging at the emotional heartstrings of how a family feels. Kubo certainly has comedy and funny animals in common with its Disney counterparts, but Monkey and Beetle have far more beneath the surface than reaction and merchandising. Kubo is not a toy movie designed to push products. Finding Dory, for all its excellence, is a film that inevitably leads to plush toys and Christmas lists. Kubo doesn’t have that ulterior motive.
Kubo and the Two Strings is, ultimately, a film about stories, and memories, and family, and the literal “strings” that tie those things together. In fleeing his evil grandfather and searching for his father’s armor, Kubo comes to learn the meaning of the parents he lost, specifically in how they related to each other. While typical Disney films dealing with the loss of parents often explore what a lost parent means to a child (and Kubo does touch upon that), they tend not to look back to how mother and father relate to each other, and how a child comes about as a product of their love.
Nor do they examine the child’s life as being part of the continuum of their parents’ existence. Kubo, as the storyteller, understands that even the most exciting of stories has to come to an end. There’s a painful lesson in this movie about how the unending story becomes pointless, and how the mortality of humans ironically also gives their lives meaning. The only true immortality humans can achieve is in memory, living on in the songs and stories of the children who come after them.
As a non-merchandising movie, it’s a shame that Kubo likely won’t get a fraction of the attention that a Disney/Pixar offering earns. Kubo and the Two Strings goes beyond being family-friendly fare and serves as a deep examination of what parents and children mean to each other and is a worthy offering for weekend viewing and reflection. On an intellectual level alone, this one could be a dark horse challenger for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
Rating: Five strings out of five.