Reviewer: Philip Price
Directors: Travis Knight
Stars: Art Parkinson, Brenda Vaccaro, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Charlize Theron, George Takei,Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara
Released: September 9th, 2016
Sometimes things just click. We’ve all seen instances where they don’t. In fact, most movies seem like they could be examples of experiments that don’t always pay off in the way the writers/directors/creative people hope they might, but this feels especially true when it comes to Laika productions. Coraline was a solid venture and a full on experience in the style of animation and kind of twisted tone of story that the production company would come to specialize in. With ParaNorman the studio would essentially excel at achieving what they set out to do. Complimenting the twisted and frightening elements of their storytelling with humorous characters and eccentric production design that was just quirky enough so as to not be legitimately scary. It was only with 2014’sThe Boxtrolls that the pieces felt as if they were all present and yet the final product didn’t come together as those in charge of story and execution aspired it might. There were still elements that were visually stunning about the picture, but the script found trouble communicating its larger ideas with a premise that didn’t hook audiences as well as the infinitely comforting ParaNorman did. This brings us to Kubo and the Two Strings and how Laika has more or less again found a balance of all these ambitions it desires to display both visually and story wise. It may not be a perfectly balanced package of all these ingredients, but as a whole Kubo is endlessly charming and to go one step further, wholly enchanting. Whether it be in the outstanding visuals that are abundantly creative at conveying the necessary story points of this folktale like narrative or the fully realized cast of characters that make stop motion animation feel more life-like than ever Kubo is a genuine treat. Why it is so hard to define or provide concrete reasoning as to why something works so well when all the pieces fall into place is simply by virtue of the fact it is more about the emotional reaction it stirs up in the viewer rather than anything analytical. Though Kubo has a few shortcomings in trying to clearly relay exactly what its story is trying to say as well as in the fact it didn’t hit me with as much emotional heft as I expected given the first act of the film packs a tough punch it is still too beautiful and very much an achievement in visual storytelling that it would be a shame to hold too much against it.
The first ten minutes or so of Kubo and the Two Strings gives the rest of Kubo and the Two Strings a lot to live up to. In what is largely wordless sequences we are shown a young woman making her way through treacherous waters, battling her father the Moon King, and attempting to keep safe the small child that she has tucked away under robes on her person. Of course, as we’re seeing this unfold we’re not sure what exactly is going on or even that the young woman has a baby with her. It is only revealed once she washes up on a beach that one of her child’s eyes has been taken by her superior being of a father. In short, this first ten minutes is a prime example of what Laika can do best: they can set up intrigue and mystery through the use of nothing more than striking visuals. The detail within the ocean is downright astounding when considering each of these sets were constructed by hand and the labor with which it takes to bring stop motion animation to life. One almost feels guilty for blinking the imagery is so breathtaking and the effort appreciated all the more for not being obvious in the labor. It is not until the title card epically appears are we brought up to speed on the fact the young boy who lost his eye as a baby is Kubo and that he now lives a quiet, normal life in a small shoreside village with his mother. Still, things haven’t been the same since that fateful night in which the Moon King took Kubo’s eyes. Since, Kubo has never been allowed to go out after dark and it seems that as a result of this traumatic experience combined with the loss of her husband and Kubo’s father just prior that Kubo’s mother only speaks when the sun goes down and the two are safe inside their cave. Free from the gaze of her all-consuming father. To entertain himself during the day and collect a few earnings on the side Kubo walks down to the seaside village where he plays his instrument bringing origami figures to life and spinning tales in which the people of this village are enraptured with. Kubo can see his mother is growing weaker and weaker though, and so one day he decides to pray to his father and ask him for help, but a different spirit from the past returns instead re-igniting an age-old vendetta sending Kubo on a quest to locate a magical suit of armor worn by his late father in order to defeat the vengeful spirit from the past.
Memories are powerful things. This is a strand of thought that is touched upon often in Kubo and is even countered when introducing the character of Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) who doesn’t have any memories at all, but remains certain of so many things. In this mystical land of ancient Japan though, memories are the most powerful kind of magic there is. And it is here where we begin to shape the themes and ideas it would seem director and Laika president and CEO Travis Knight as well as screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler (ParaNorman) want to imbue upon what otherwise becomes something of a standard quest to retrieve magical items plot. There is much to do with keeping in contact with ancestors who have passed on, respecting those who have gone before us, and praying to them when in need of something in this life. It would all seem to be leading to something in terms of the memories these ancestors being a part of the most powerful weapon our titular hero can possess despite the fact a sword, body armor, and shield are also necessary, but it doesn’t take advantage of this as much as one expects. To a certain degree it does culminate these strands nicely, but not as effectively as I might have hoped for. In not wanting to delve too much into the ins and outs of the story it is easiest to say that Kubo is a boy who has more in common with Job than he might his own father. It seems, despite being the offspring of a God and a great Samurai warrior that it is Kubo’s destiny to be stripped of all these advantages he was destined to be born into. He is a boy who endures much loss and therefore even greater suffering, but for what reasons or for what purpose-he is unsure. Like Job though, Kubo accepts willingly the just and the unjust that comes down upon him and moves forward with his mission befriending not only Beetle, but Monkey (Charlize Theron) who comes to life through a charm Kubo’s mother gave to him when he was little. Monkey aids in the understanding of their mission not simply being an exercise in survival only to delay the inevitability of death until another day, but rather to ensure the power of humanity continues to spread through their actions. At least, that’s what I gathered from what I feel like the analogy between ancient Japanese culture, the always relevant love that exists between parent and child, and the memories that bind us forever, but I could definitely be off-that analogy gets a little muddied along the way.
Where the story somewhat feels disjointed though, the character work feels like it makes up for much of the lost ground the actual narrative can’t convey. Kubo himself, voiced by Art Parkinson (San Andreas), is an extremely endearing presence. He is optimistic, maybe overly so at certain points but that shouldn’t be a knock when you’re a child, and it is in the small moments of not so much the performance, but the animation of the body language and certain facial expressions that we realize the full extent of what this young boy is experiencing and that he only continues to prove his worth no matter the challenges. Kubo, both the movie and the character, go on this journey of simultaneous self-discovery it seems. A character states at one point that, “the stronger Kubo grows the more danger we will find ourselves in,” and as we see the depths of peril naturally become greater as the movie goes along we see how both in the scope of the story and in Kubo’s life specifically that life has a funny way of keeping things balanced. Too much power and one slips into greed and envy, no power at all and one grows desperate and uninspired. As in any walk of life, balance is key and it is through this battle of Kubo’s mother and her legitimately creepy sisters (voiced by Rooney Mara) that this lesson is learned by Kubo. The Sisters think of perfection as the ultimate goal and in accomplishing as much this essentially means one must eradicate emotion from their life. To live a life that means anything at the end of the day requires we feel something. And so, the easy question to answer is if feelings are worth the trouble they will inevitably cause you? Through the tender interactions between Kubo and his mother, the playful rapport between Monkey and Beetle, the camaraderie that develops between Kubo and Beetle and the small, but hilarious additions of a tiny origami Samurai it is clear to see where the film falls in favor of allowing meaningful connections to develop. And thus, one can only assume that whatever you may take away from Kubo is correct on some level-whether it be that life teaches us lessons to better understand how to live it or to simply hug your mom extra tight next time you see her. Regardless, Kubo and the Two Strings is a family movie full of soul, wisdom, and kindness that can’t be understated at this moment in our history.