Laika Studios, creators of ParaNorman and Coraline, once again proves that stop-motion in cinema can convey powerful themes all while being sold as a children’s story. Their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings draws its inspiration from Japanese folklore, in particular the connection between man and the mystical realm. In this tale, communing with spirits is as natural as breathing to its inhabitants, which makes it perfect for tackling themes of loss, grief, and the courage to forgive.
In a small sea-side village lives Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a young boy who spends his days telling stories to earn money to care for his ill mother. When he disobeys his mother’s instructions and fails to return home by nightfall, Kubo unwittingly brings death and destruction upon his village. Now, Kubo must journey to find a mythical suit of armor that will give him the strength to bring peace to his village and discover his connection to the evil force besieging his home.
Compelling doesn’t begin to describe Kubo. The characters are engaging, the narrative is mystical, and the art direction is superb. Let’s being with the art direction. Origami (Japanese art of paper folding) is used, along with bunraku (Japanese puppet theater), to tell this emotionally rich narrative set in pre-colonial Japan. These were great choices as narrative tools as both of these art forms contain a child-like quality but require expert precision to be executed properly and to be effective. They also lend themselves to the narrative as Kubo is, himself, a storyteller. Using this talent, which he learned from his mother, he spends his days animating paper to recreate battles that his father, a great samurai named Hanzo, fought before being killed by the Moon King. Animating the paper with magic works in this setting as there is no industrialization to undermine the spiritual beliefs of the townsfolk. They revel in Kubo’s abilities instead of fearing them. Another reason these were great choices as narrative tools is the fact that the media are malleable. This presents a fluid way for Kubo to express his emotions while telling the stories.
Then there is the narrative itself. From the start, Kubo and the Two Strings is focused on telling stories. The audience is cautioned not to blink for fear of missing critical details. There are no wasted moments as the film challenges audiences to look beyond what they see all while holding back expectations. For example, audiences expect a child’s tale to be innocent and they expect a happy ending. Kubo’s tale, for all of its magic and wonder, is also one heavily grounded in reality. With his father dead and his mother lost, Kubo is all that stands between his village and the vengeful Moon King. His circumstances are grim, his sadness justified, yet Kubo is given a chance to move past it all to acceptance and forgiveness. Throughout the film, Kubo constantly refers to his life as a story, so it makes sense to view this film not as the end, but as the beginning of something new. In fact, Kubo himself wonders frequently what stories people will tell about him. How will he be remembered? Kubo even ponders if life ends when we pass from this plane of existence or if it’s when the last of us remember your story. For a child’s tale, it asks large questions and it provides few answers. Though sometimes a bit heady, Kubo is beyond dour. It challenges more than an animated film is expected to, which would suggest a coldness in delivery, except that Laika Studios excels at crafting narratives and developing a casts so capable that the true warmth of the tale shines through.
The casting for Kubo is excellent, though it does have its issues. The good first: Art Parkinson as Kubo never comes across as naïve or helpless. Combined with the artist’s rendering of Kubo, Art’s performance captures a child aware of the world, comfortable with the ethereal, and at ease even in troubling situations. He’s thoughtful, though not necessarily wise, and he’s brave, though not necessarily a warrior. Parkinson’s vocal performance brings to life a fully-formed character that’s believable in this extraordinary story. As his companion and protector, Charlize Theron provides the voice of Monkey, a childhood charm made flesh through his mother’s magic. Proving time and again capable in any role, Charlize easily oscillates between no-nonsense mentor and compassionate companion. Though initially cold, with extreme subtlety, Charlize is able to capture the inherent warmth of the maternal love Monkey is imbued and unable to hide. Kubo’s other companion is Beetle, an amnesiac samurai beetle who claims fealty to Kubo’s father, voiced beautifully by Matthew McConaughey. Though Kubo features many light-hearted moments, Beetle, in many ways, is meant to lighten the story around its darker edges, which makes Matthew’s relaxed drawl perfect for the characterization. Rounding out the main cast is Rooney Mara as the voice of Kubo’s mysterious aunts and Ralph Fiennes as his grandfather, the Moon King. Both actors do a great deal with very little screen time. Rooney’s characters serve as narrative bumps, while Ralph’s Moon King is a threatening presence for the majority of the film, only appearing at the very end. All told, the cast is superb and brings the necessary skill to breathe life into the stop-motion animation. However, this film deserves better.
To be clear, the best actors should always receive the best parts. This doesn’t always happen and it’s hard not to wonder where Kubo and the Two Strings casting falls. For a film heavily influenced by Japanese culture, the majority of the speaking roles went to Caucasian actors. Though the film features the immense talent of George Takei (Star Trek: The Original Series/Heroes) and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Mortal Kombat/47 Ronin), their roles are regulated to one-liners or minor chatter. Given the scope of the film and the success of Laika Studios’ previous films, it’s difficult to believe that a more appropriate cast of voice actors could have been collected. Again, the actors do an amazing job bringing to life a remarkable story, sparking real emotions from the audience. However, none of these actors are really the draw of the film, it’s the animation and art director from the illustrious studio that sells tickets. This is not a reason to avoid the film, just certainly one aspect that not only cannot be ignored, but is the sole reason the film didn’t feel as authentic as it should have.
Laika Studios once again presents a story about family wrapped within a mystical tale. Kubo and the Two Strings lacks the songs of Corpse Bride or the terror of Coraline but it possesses all of the heart and weight of ParaNorman and then exceeds it. Though Kubo is not a tale for young children, this animated tale serves a parable for the young at heart to remember that family is more than those that raised you. Just because this lesson is wrapped in a supernatural adventure of a young boy restoring his family to the peace it deserves doesn’t make it any less valuable or poignant.
Final Score: 4 out of 5