Kubo and the Two Strings Review
Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika Animation’s fourth feature film, is a bracingly impressive achievement, combining some of the most stunning visuals of the year with a profound rumination on death, grief, memory and storytelling. Director Travis Knight (who also owns Laika and is the son of Nike founder Phil Knight) has taken a relatively simplistic ‘hero’s journey’ tale and injected a healthy dosage of true inspiration into it. Not only is it visually unlike anything I have ever seen, its views on love and death are near revolutionary for a children’s film. The highest compliment I can offer for an animated film is a comparison to the works of Hayao Miyazaki but Kubo and the Two Strings truly earns this likening through a distinctly impacting marriage of visual splendor and thematic heft.
Kubo (voiced by Rickon Stark himself, Art Parkinson) is our young hero, displaying both youthful vigor and a world-weary understanding as he lives isolated with his mother. He is both a storyteller of grand mythic creations to the local town and an avid consumer of his own story, relayed to him by his magically gifted matriarch. Despite the warnings from his mother, Kubo is one day exposed to the powers of the night and the blind wanton of the mystical Moon God who seeks to claim this special boy for his own. After a confrontation with powers beyond his understanding (aka Rooney Mara as two terrifying entities), he is whisked away on an adventure that will provide an ending for the stories he takes so much joy in relaying. Kubo soon finds himself aided by a monkey imbued with his mother’s magic (a stern Charlize Theron) and a mysterious samurai turned into a beetle (Matthew McConaughey), who brings an endearingly dopey sense of knowing humor to the epic proceedings.
One of the more fascinating aspects of Kubo is how much of a debt it owes to Japanese mythology. There are some thorny aspects of representation, namely giving Japanese roles to the McConaughey and Ireland-born Art Parkinson, but the reverence that the film holds for Japanese culture and myth-making shines through. The Moon God owes a debt to the classic Tale of the Princess Kaguya (recently adapted by Studio Ghibli), a skeletal antagonist is based heavily on a Japanese legend and Dario Marianelli’s wonderful koto-infused soundtrack is a loving tribute to the national instrument of Japan. It’s astonishing that an American children’s film in this day and age can feature incredibly Eastern discussions about the journey to the afterlife and even a representation of Obon, a festival to honor the spirits of our loved ones. Far from toning down these aesthetics, concepts and beliefs, Kubo embraces them full-force and with open arms.
Kubo and the Two Strings sticks to a loose structure from start to finish but it shows a relatively remarkable resistance to cliché. The film treats its characters with reverence, never giving way to the easy paths that the story might offer. Catharsis is earned so as to be deeply felt and the characters are drawn so that we want nothing more than to reach these moments of emotional release. Shared scars, a mutual sense of grief and familial connections are just a few of the ties that bind the characters together. These themes aren’t always fully explored, however, and that is one of Kubo’s few problems. It feels as if there are even more ideas and themes lurking beneath the film’s calming waters and they are never quite brought to the surface, resulting in some slightly muddled storytelling. In addition to this, the film's climax is ever so slightly disappointing. When the film reaches what should be its peak, it isn't quite as strong as what preceded it, giving in to third act woes, a relatively weak villain and a few instances of derivative imagery.
Still, this misstep is nothing compared to the weighty wonder in Kubo's stunning capper. This final scene is one of raw power and washes away any questions about the iffy choices the writers may have made before this point. The pure, essential understanding of the human condition that Travis Knight shows is at once unexpected and ambiguous but also rapturously comforting. There is a wiseness to his film that I don’t think we should take for granted. Kubo never approaches its weighty material with even a drop of cynicism - something quite rare and altogether special in this day when darkness is often mistaken for heft. It’s nice to know that, much like Pete’s Dragon, a film made for mass consumption can be so empathetic and true in what it wishes to convey. It’s even better that this is all in a children’s film. Like last year’s Inside Out, Kubo and the Two Strings understands that, in the process of growing up, it is as important to understanding that which may make us feel sad, hurt and devastated. Kubo is even more tinged with sadness and power than Inside Out and, for that, it may be an even better film. Both films take a journey into loss but it is Kubo that comes out the other side with life both behind and ahead of it. As a film, it is euphoric, pure and true.
As someone who has experienced a near unfair amount of loss just within the last year, this film’s views on death and our grieving process are at once heart-rending and completely calming. Kubo and the Two Strings understands that death is an integral part of life but also that this doesn’t mean it has to be easy. When you lose someone, the hole that they leave digs itself into your conscious so much that it can be nearly too much to bear. Kubo and the Two Strings does not shrug off this sadness but welcomes it. It is the pain of loss that enriches or lives, validating both our lives and the lives of the loved ones that we have lost. Knight and writers Chris Butler and Marc Haimes show an uncanny understanding of the power of grief as well as the power within each of us to overcome it. But don’t worry – for parents worried that their kids may not like it, there are still fantastic adventure scenes, numerous jokes, a talking monkey and an epic adventure.
At one point toward the end of the film, a character tells young Kubo that his central antagonist wants him because he wishes to make him ‘perfect.’ Baring his soul, Kubo breaks down and declares that he doesn’t wish to be perfect. As a film, Kubo and the Two Strings is as far from perfect as its main character is but its ambition, beauty and resonance work alongside its flaws to form a wholly unique creation. Despite its problems, this is a film at peace with its imperfections, a wholly spiritual creation that basks in the power of pure emotion.