Overview: A young boy, joined by a talking monkey and beetle samurai, embarks on a quest to discover the ending to his story. Focus Features; 2016; Rated PG; 102 minutes.
Kubo: Kubo and the Two Strings tells the tale of a young boy from a small village with one great aspiration in life — he wants to tell stories. It’s practically a superpower for him. Kubo’s mother tells him stories of his father, the great warrior Hanzo. Kubo constructs origami creations to tell the story of Hanzo and his quest to gather a mystical set of armor to vanquish the villainous Moon King. The town folk are enamored by the story, eagerly participating showing how the community is more than familiar with this story. But Kubo’s mother warns him to never stay out after dark, so he never reveals an ending. After an unexpected meeting with his aunts, Kubo begins a quest of his own to find the armor.
Kubo and the Two Strings is all quite mythical, lending itself to many apt comparisons involving Legend of Zelda, but it’s more like Mass Effect for the whole family. Cycles of storytelling are the emotional framework built around the structure of RPG-style fetch quests, culminating in a finale built with thematics and character choices. The weaponry and physical adventure is exciting, worthy of all the praise heaped upon it. Yet the truest adventure for Kubo and his brave companions, a talking monkey and samurai beetle, lies in the story they share together. Telling a story can be just as pure as having experienced one. “You had to be there” bears no mark on the world. What these stories mean that determines their place in our hearts.
The Two Strings: Kubo and the Two Strings and its titular character provide for a film that revolves around love and the stories we share with one another. Storytelling isn’t reserved for fiction. It’s all through the perspective of Kubo but harkens to a universal truths about love, life, and death. There is a tale of loss, how sometimes life can be cruel and punishing, but it’s through the nature of telling one another’s stories and the love we all share that makes us stronger. There’s something worth fighting for, even if the world tells you otherwise. There is hurt and pain in this grand adventure, emotional beats both cruel and touching.
There’s a bluntness to the narrative, but when a film is this assured in its own design, how could anybody take that away from it? Kubo and the Two Strings walks the walk and talks the talk, even if some might be put off by how often the talking takes place.
I’ve only been able to find 3D showings of Kubo and the Two Strings with varying degrees of success. Most animated fare is a safe bet with 3D as the imagery pops off the screen, and stop-motion might as well be the holy grail of the medium. Director Travis Knight (CEO and lead animator of Laika) has a remarkable understanding of scale and scope, endless imagery capturing the vast emotions on display. There’s an expressionistic touch to the bountiful and foreboding opening ocean sequence, followed by the beginning of Kubo’s daily routine to and from his village.
One sequence features the largest stop-motion creation ever constructed: a 16-foot tall giant skeleton with swords in its head towers over Kubo and his companions, Monkey and Beetle. The action quickly established them as a cohesive, if imperfect, union. A make-shift family brought together by tragedy. Monkey gets the benefit of being voiced by Charlize Theron, possibly her second most badass role to date, while Beetle is a surprisingly not-out-of-place Matthew McConaughey. Theron’s voice brings a tender warmth but serious demeanor when it comes to protecting Kubo. Beetle on the other hand is far more relaxed, his thoughts drifting further away from him on a daily basis. He can’t remember his story. All Kubo has is his.
The voice cast is unanimously spectacular, but it’s odd given the nature of respect to Japanese folklore and culture that a story wouldn’t hire any Asian voices in the main cast. There are a few, including George Takei who gets his classic “Oh my!” but none headline the proceedings. I understand the thinking that big-name actors would bring in audiences, but it’s 2016 and even Tom Cruise didn’t stop Edge of Tomorrow from flopping. The casting itself brings weight to the roles, and each actor will give you a sharp reaction from somewhere on the emotional spectrum, but there’s no reason why Beetle couldn’t have been played by someone like Ken Watanabe. He had the funniest line in Inception for crying out loud! It’s the largest and most unfortunate misstep in the production of the film. I’m not sure I’m qualified to talk about this further but I’d be remiss not to note it.
Overall: The tale of Kubo and the Two Strings has proved itself a triumph in 2016. Not just over animation or film, but any storytelling medium in 2016. It’s a reminder of the power storytelling can create for us as individuals and as a species. At one point Beetle tells Monkey, and I’m paraphrasing here because I can’t stop crying at certain points of this film, “Stories don’t end. They’re shared long after someone is gone.” To get more personal, Kubo and the Two Strings made me think of people I’ve come across in life. People I’ve cared for, people who have passed away. I thought about their stories. Sure it’s sad to think of family and friends no longer with us, but I’m happy to be here so I can share their stories. I think I’ll keep sharing this one too.
Featured Image: Focus Features