In a summer dominated by a few questionable blockbuster movies, Kubo and the Two Strings provides a much-needed break from it all.
If you're familiar at all with Laika's previous films like Coraline or ParaNorman, you'll know that the studio excels at harkening back to the feeling of being a kid exploring another world in your own backyard. There's an early Tim Burton-level of creepiness infused in all Laika's work — think Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice. While Kubo doesn't share the same level of whimsy, it certainly hints at things more sinister than you'd expect.
Everything about the movie is visually stunning
Kubo and the Two Strings tells the story of a young boy with a magical two-string shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese lute) on a quest to reclaim what is rightfully his father's armor — a legendary three-piece samurai set, to be exact. Why? Basically, his grandfather is trying to kill him and he needs to protect himself.
A bit dark, yes.
That's the simple version of it. To say that this film is about a kid who goes on an adventure isn’t completely accurate. It’s more like he’s put into a situation where he’s forced to grow up when he wasn’t ready. Kubo (Game of Thrones’ Art Parkinson) struggles to balance his desire to have a childhood with forging his own path.
Kubo’s beginning starts off strong, and is in no way shy about boasting its painstakingly hand-crafted aesthetic. Seeing the movie in 3D only enhances the attention to detail, as you find yourself not just appreciating the characters, but also every little prop that comes into view. When Kubo goes into town to perform his mother's stories using his shamisen, the sound of the strings breathes life into inanimate objects, bending and shaping them to his every whim. Sheets of origami paper intricately fold themselves into samurai and creatures of folklore to illustrate stories that puppets and words could never capture. Even the pulp in the paper is apparent, lending an extra layer of appreciation for the stop-motion. Everything about the movie is visually stunning, so don't be surprised if your attention falters for a few seconds as you're marveling at scenery and set design.
Kubo and the Two Strings is about sacrifice, the importance of memory and carrying on the legacy of your parents.
What's more surprising, however, is the train of emotion that barrels into you within the first half hour. For those of you who have seen Pixar's Up, you might remember whispering to yourself, "What is this?!" in the beginning. It's a bit like that. Kubo pulls no punches and hits you hard with the reality of what it's like to take care of a parent who can no longer care for themselves. It's heartbreaking, but doesn't blindly demand that the viewer sympathize. Instead, it presents it delicately and without the feeling of self-importance that sad origin stories tend to exaggerate. There's no crying child, there's no hidden sense of resentment. Instead, there's pure care and love expressed in the simplest actions. And that's where Kubo and the Two Strings really shines. Watching Kubo prepare meals for his mother is almost like watching a Japanese tea ceremony. All of his actions are so mindful and so precise that it's hard not to foster an appreciation for him right away.
There are some key plot points throughout the film that get glossed over. Where did the magical instrument come from? How did his mom even come to have it? Why is it magical? The explanation itself doesn’t really matter, but any small amount of context would’ve been appreciated. Both the ending and true nature of Monkey (Charlize Theron) is somehow thrown onto the audience with no extra explanation and the rest of the twists are predictable. The comic relief that Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) provides is middling at best, losing his forgetful charm within minutes of being introduced (literally forgetful, his memory is cursed). The jokes get repetitive, but they float the heroic trio from one adventure to the next. By the time you realize they’re really on their way to their goal, you might feel the need to buckle up and wait for the grand checklist to be over. There's also some obvious chemistry between Monkey and Beetle, which might make you feel weird because it's a monkey and a beetle.
The real treat though, is how the villains are presented. Ralph Fiennes delivers an outstanding performance, channeling his inner Lord Voldemort as Kubo's grandfather. Speaking in soft tones and instilling an uneasy sense of calm is a specialty that few actors have mastered. His daughters (both voiced by Rooney Mara), Kubo's aunts, capture the quintessential "troubled female ghost" of East Asian folklore. The ethereal nature of the way they glide, the silky way they coo, pale skin and long hair all are right on the mark of what Japanese call yuurei, or guishin to Koreans. Typically they wear white, as that symbolizes death and the spirit world in their respective cultures, but here they're all in black. It's interesting to see the cultural nuances of what Laika decided to keep and tweak for their audience.
Kubo and the Two Strings provides a much-needed break from questionable blockbusters
For a film that’s steeped in Japanese folklore, it’s a huge missed opportunity to not have more than George Takei voicing a relatively minor character. Sure, star power is important in garnering interest in any movie, but is there any reason why Laika couldn't cast a young Asian-American actor to voice its main protagonist? Whitewashing is softened but certainly not erased with stop-motion characters. While it’s not as egregious as testing VFX to make actors appear more Asian, it certainly couldn’t hurt to have more representation in the cast.
Kubo and the Two Strings is all about sacrifice, the importance of memory and carrying on the legacy of your family. It emphasizes that you are not your parents, but a reflection of them. Kubo wants to be everything great about his dad, partially for himself but — more for the sake of his mother. But it’s not at all about following footsteps or wallowing in loss. Kubo displays an immense strength, and the film is an inspiring journey that shows his wisdom beyond years. Kubo and the Two Strings is certainly a movie that both older and younger audiences can appreciate, and Laika’s latest film is perhaps its most "grown up" of all.