I see a lot of myself in Kubo (Art Parkinson). He creates stories to escape his gloomy reality and learn of his past, while I as a child concocted fables to combat loneliness. His stories are filled with brave warriors overcoming the odds to trample beasts and monsters, just as mine did. At the core of each story is the power of sheer will and compassion ringing true. Kubo’s stories not only reminded me of those that I used to scribble down in a notebook on a quiet night, but of the films I’d watch to take me to another reality. I would get lost in the world of cinema as a child, just as I do now. “Kubo and the Two Strings” took me back to a time when that other reality meant everything to me.
Unlike Kubo, my stories weren’t real. He doesn’t believe his to be either despite his magical guitar bringing his origami to life. He goes into the peaceful village near his isolated cliff-top home to regale the townsfolk in stories of Hanzo, the brave warrior. He befriends a kindly old lady, Kameyo (Brenda Vaccaro), who inspires wisdom via her kinship. She’s even able to convince him to include a fire-breathing chicken in his latest fable to act as comic relief. She, like him, is a street performer looking not only for currency, but to inspire others. You can tell in Kubo’s eyes that he adores the attention he receives when the townsfolk gather round to watch his origami weave a fantastical tale. They get lost in the stories just as we do.
Kubo’s stories are inspired by the one his mother’s told him. Only those aren’t stories, but factual accounts of her past. Hanzo was her husband, Kubo’s father, who won her heart and saved her from a demonic family. He was slain by them, leaving behind his wife and newborn child. She whisked Kubo off to safety, but not before one of his eyes was taken. Now, the family has returned in search for the other eye in order to blind the young boy from society and convert him to the dark side.
The villains represent the overprotection parents have of their children. Parents understandably don’t want their children to see the ugliness of the world: deceit, corruption, and death. It’s why safe and wholesome family films dominate the market, as they don’t challenge the senses all that much. To shield children from the realities of life is to rob them of experience which will guide them through the rough terrain as they grow older. The evil family here, led by the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and the witchy sisters (Rooney Mara voicing both), are immortal beings who blind themselves from the realities of life. Instead of being blissful, they are shown as cold and resentful as they haven’t learned how to cope with loss. Hanzo winning the heart of their daughter is seen as betrayal, their fears being she’ll be emotionally crippled by the woes of civilian life. They fear the same for Kubo, hence their return to “save” him.
The villains are never seen as pure evil, but sympathetic souls whose heartache blinds them into doing terrible things. They represent our greatest fear, that our emotions will get the better of us and lead us down a path of sin. Kubo, much like religious figures of old, represents purity in the face of evil. He is triggered by the same heartache, the loss of his father and now his ailing mother, but uses it for good. He overcomes his demons by facing them head-on. A film like this will teach children that it’s okay to be afraid. That death is devastating but not final. Even when a loved one is taken away from us, their spirit lives within our memories, molding us into the strong warriors we become. “Kubo and the Two Strings” challenges children to think, feel, and believe.
Children will get lost in Kubo’s journey. His dying mother’s last act of magic to save her son sent him off into a faraway land, accompanied by his wooden charm, now brought to life in the form of Monkey (Charlize Theron). She acts as his motherly protector, guiding him in his journey to find his father’s magical suit of armor in order to combat his treacherous blood relatives. Each piece of armor is the same as in his stories. Along the way they encounter a warrior Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), whose memory is weak but he knows in his heart he fought alongside Kubo’s father .He acts as comic relief, just as the kindly old lady suggested, spouting off puns and one-liners; an insect after my own heart.
The trio encounters mystical beasts and creatures just like the ones in Kubo’s story. They must retrieve a powerful sword implanted in the head of a giant skeleton. They do battle with eye creatures beneath the sea whose stare puts even the most hardened of warriors into a trance. They must fend off the magic of the witch sisters who trample their ship at sea. Along the way the three learn lessons in strength, humility, teamwork, love, compassion, mortality, and even death. There’s a revelation that parents will see coming from a mile away, no less powerful when it’s revealed.
The film is done in the stop-motion style Laika is known for. It is at its most enchanting here, with the figures resembling the origami Kubo uses to tell stories and craft allies, weapons, and resources to protect himself. Ancient Japan is carefully crafted with lavish landscapes and beautiful colors. I found myself getting lost in the background at times, noticing the twinkle in the stars, the bask of the moonlight, the ripples in the sea. A clip shown in the middle of the credits showcases the crew assembling the giant skeleton, confirming my belief that everything on screen is made magical by passion. I think back to the works of Ray Harryhausen, as well as the timeless classic “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” in which stop-motion animation brought creatures to life. Even as a kid I knew they were fake, but the fact that they moved so seamlessly as if they were real had me in awe. I was in awe once again with “Kubo and the Two Strings.”
Director Travis Knight and screenwriters Marc Haimes & Chris Butler (working off a story by Haimes & Shannon Tindle) have created a wonderful entry in the Laika library! It, just like “Coraline,” “Paranorman,” & “The Boxtrolls,” creates a world unto its own, with problems found in the real world taking center stage. These worlds represent the fantasies we as children create to deal with our problems and fears. It is as elegant as it is haunting, as enchanting as it is heartbreaking. In a word, it’s breathtaking!
“Kubo and the Two Strings” will make children laugh, cry, gasp, cheer, and believe. They’ll watch as the plucky hero overcomes his demons and copes with loss, teaching them that they’re not alone. They are strong even when feeling weak, brave even when scared stiff, loved even when they feel alone. To face the realities of life will not cripple them, but build them into stronger versions of themselves. The film speaks up to children, not down at them. Films such as this are as important in building character in children as anything else.
I’m often asked if I ever tire of going to the movies. Gorging on so many each year surely must result in desensitization. I always point in the direction of films like “Kubo and the Two Strings,” which remind me why I fell in love with cinema in the first place. Films like this show the true power of cinema, with its ability to lift you into another reality, filled with wonderment and elegance. Issues that challenge the senses, building character and hope along the way. An escape from loneliness all the while teaching me that I’m never alone. In my darkest hours, even today, cinema can remind me of the beauty of life!
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is why I love film! It is pure magic!
Final Rating: A+