The most beautiful movie of 2016.
I saw Pete’s Dragon and Kubo and the Two Strings within a day of each other and they were wonderful companion pieces. Both films represent the very best in movies for kids, even as they give the adults tons of thematic richness potentially too complex for the kids to fully understand. They’ll feel stuff that stays with them, that they won’t recognize as coherent until long after its taken root. That’s the power of movies like these.
I have been a fan of Laika since Coraline and I would argue that ParaNorman is a masterpiece… but Kubo and the Two Strings blows all their other work out of the water. This is a movie that bleeds ambition, beauty, confidence, and grace. Every frame is a work of art and the kind of spectacle that will leave you scratching your head when you realize just how much of this movie is stop-motion with paper dolls and puppets. In Laika films, CGI is used only to enhance and to give backdrops, but you will have a hard time believing that.
Kubo is one of the best adventure movies since The Lord of the Rings, featuring the same tropes of quest narratives that are so well established but also very much taken for granted. It’s also heavy in a way that might surprise you. More even than Pete’s Dragon, which has an indie movie softness of tone, Kubo presents moments of powerful emotional weight that are punctuated by wonder, happiness, and humor. This movie is so well realized that it’s almost shocking how good it is. 2016 has been kind of a dismal year for films, but kids’ movies have consistently been great and Kubo is the best of them.
SPOILERS WILL NOT MAKE THIS MOVIE BETTER
Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a one-eyed boy living with his mother outside a simple village. Every morning, he goes down to the village and tells a mythic story of a samurai named Hanzo and his battle against the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes, who kills it in his few scenes). He plays his shamisen and enchants colorful paper into the shapes and figures of his story, to the delight of the townsfolk. But he must hurry back to his mother every evening to avoid certain doom because… the story he tells is also the story of where he comes from.
Kubo is about the importance of memory, that we both save and create for ourselves, in the face of nihilism and loss. Heavy stuff, like I said. Kubo’s memories are not really his, but his mother’s… and she is slowly losing them. Every day it is harder for her to remember him, her stories of her father the Moon King and his anger at her betrayal: falling in love with Hanzo and giving birth to Kubo. He yearns for his father, but has no real memory of him. And it’s an attempt to connect with his father that puts him directly in the danger that his mother has protected him from. Because of this choice, which is so meaningful because of what memory represents to the characters and the underlying themes of the film, Kubo embarks on his big adventure.
The film is occasionally pretty intense and frightening.
With only his monkey charm, brought to life by his mother’s magic, to protect him, Kubo must journey in the Far Lands to find three pieces of armor which can protect him from the Moon King. The Monkey (Charlize Theron) is a taciturn but loyal protector, betraying moments of vulnerability and concern only when she thinks Kubo can’t see her. The Moon King already took one of Kubo’s eyes, and wants the other, dispatching Kubo’s frightening aunts to catch him. In the Far Lands, part of the heavily Japanese fantasy world of the film, they also encounter Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a samurai trapped in a body with only broken memories of his past. He believes he once served the legendary Hanzo, which prompts him to swear himself to Kubo. Now a threesome, they are guided by a small paper version of Hanzo, from Kubo’s stories, who shows them where to go to get the gear Kubo needs.
Most adventure movies are relentlessly paced. If you compare, say, The Force Awakens to this movie, you’ll see there are many structural and tonal similarities. However, Kubo has more in common with A New Hope for being confident in its plot and storyline enough to pause and let the characters breathe. There’s time for the audience to learn about each of them, and to enjoy how they bounce off of and support each other as their journey goes on. There’s also the very fairy-tale twist that both Monkey and Beetle are really Kubo’s parents, transformed by magic. Where Monkey knows who she is and hides the truth from Kubo because she knows her death is imminent, Beetle simply doesn’t remember who he really is. In both cases, memory and truth intermingle in a way that resonates with what Kubo wants and needs from them. He suffers from their loss and he needs memories to chase away that pain, to transform it into empathy and inner strength.
So Kubo’s story is both about the family you find and the family you lost.
All of the plot and character stuff is steeped in the mythic and the mystic. The logic of the Moon King’s designs on Kubo, and the way the celestial family works, are presented as tales, but inseparable from the fabric of the universe of the film. Humanity’s ability to perceive suffering and loss, but to make connections and memories and find love, are what the Moon King wants to take away from Kubo. This isn’t just thematic or symbolic, but registers as a fundamental aspect of the Moon King and the representation of who he is as a character. He’s a fascinating character because what makes him evil isn’t malice but indifference. He’s literally blind to the suffering of mortals, while he lives in the heavens with his family and never changes or understands. That’s what he wants for Kubo and what is so seductive about what he offers. Everybody at some point wants to feel nothing, especially when they hurt. Kubo suffers a lot of hurt in this story and he could turn it all off, like the Moon King, but in finding value in spite of the hurt he embraces the forces of change and life that the Moon King dismisses.
Theron’s venom (as Monkey) when she describes the family to Kubo, especially in the word “perfect”, is not only a great moment for a performer, but really a pretty profound statement about the messiness of life, which we don’t ask for but should see as nuanced, complex, and not really one thing or another but both. In other words, Kubo and the Two Strings is philosophical about the human experience, strongly presenting as an existential narrative about overcoming nihilism with existential humanism. In the simplest terms, this is a movie about taking the good with the bad. But the way it presents that idea, that realization (which Kubo has by the end) is far more complex and meaningful than just shrugging one’s shoulders and “getting on with” the tragedies and troubles of life. The act of remembering is also an act of creation, and the narratives we construct make us who we are.
Kubo’s heroism is multi-dimensional, and we see him adopt many roles and skills to overcome challenges before he finally settles into the path that’s truest for him. It’s not this.
This is why the ending is so good. Even though his parents are really dead now, at the hands of the Moon King’s daughters, and Kubo is swearing revenge… he doesn’t go through with it. He throws down the armor and the sword of his father and picks up the shamisen of his mother, using their tokens as strings. That’s a beautiful pay off in itself, but it’s that Kubo uses a sensitive magic to give the Moon King back his humanity that makes this ending sing. It’s a very Japanese trope for the villain to have their humanity redeemed in the end, a classic gesture of harmony and equilibrium being re-established rather than undone. The film doesn’t have a character state this, it just tells you visually and through character. As Kubo prompts the villagers to help him construct a “memory” for the Moon King, who has lost his, that memory is a kind one that represents a redemption and also a new balance. Kubo has lost his parents, but his grandfather is still family and humanity in the face of inhumanity is always better than eye for an eye. Which is why Kubo and his grandfather each keep an eye, a visual representation of the balance that has been created. This film is full of stuff like that.
I loved every minute of Kubo and the Two Strings. It’s a less accessible film in some ways than something like Pete’s Dragon but remains part of Laika’s strong and unique oeuvre of aesthetically inventive films that give kids fantasy worlds they can occupy with all the nuances and big stuff that exists in the real world. They aren’t safe places, these movies, as each of them presents frightening and challenging characters and concepts, heavy themes which are often expressed in a way that could be thought of as more geared for older kids. But that’s what makes them so important, so vital, because we have got to let kids grapple with this stuff by their own lights. There’s real merit in that, and it goes that step further than Disney or Pixar’s films which are also wonderful but seldom as weird, or challenging, or memorable.