Editor’s Note: Kubo and the Two Strings is currently playing in wide theatrical release.
A young, reedy voice gently admonishes us, “If you must blink, do it now,” a clear signal or signpost that the story we’re about to see and hear will not just entertain us, but entrance and quite possibly enlighten us as well. That’s a big promise to offer seconds into a film, regardless of the age of the speaker, a born storyteller – here a one-eyed preteen boy, Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) – or the impressive, breathtaking quality of the stop-motion animation on the screen – here the work of Oregon-based Laika (The Boxtrolls, ParaNorman, Coraline), once again topping its previous, singular efforts – but it’s also a promise Kubo and the Two Strings mostly delivers on, albeit more visually than narratively. Sketchy, underdrawn, underdeveloped characters, inconsistent world building, and several logic-challenged narrative turns and plot leaps undermine yet an otherwise stunning, stellar technical achievement from Laika.
Kubo and the Two Strings rarely disappoints visually, a testament to the entire production team, not just the stop-motion animators led by director Travis Knight.
Seconds after Kubo’s opening words, the screen reveals the first spectacular set piece of many: A tsunami threatens to drown a Feudal Japan-era woman in a small rowboat during a severe rainstorm, but she’s no ordinary woman. She’s gifted with supernatural powers, including the power to part the waves with her magically powered samisen (a three-stringed, banjo-like musical instrument). The daughter of the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), the woman fled her father’s wrath for the cardinal sin of falling in love with a human, a warrior, and giving birth to a half-human boy. That boy, of course, grows up to be Kubo. Like his mother, Kubo can summon magic from the samisen. Kubo scrapes together a living as a street performer, animating origami figures with the sound of his voice and the strumming of his samisen. Kubo and his mother, however, don’t live in the seaside town: they live in semi-exile nearby in a cave high atop a mountain.
Both son and provider to his emotionally frail mother, Kubo never strays from his duties and obligations – the concept of filial piety runs deeply through Kubo and the Two Strings narrative – but a simple oversight like remaining outside after night falls sets in motion a near tragedy involving the town, his mother, and his two witch-inspired aunts (Rooney Mara). They want Kubo’s other eye, a priceless prize for their father. In an act of self-sacrifice, Kubo’s mother teleports Kubo to a seemingly distant, snow-covered landscape. He awakens not to his mother’s father, but a Monkey (Charlize Theron), a cantankerous, overprotective maternal figure who agrees to accompany Kubo on a quest to obtain the magically empowered sword, armor, and helmet that will help defeat his grandfather. Along the way, Kubo acquires another ally, a cursed, amnesiac Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) who’s often more hindrance than help.
Characters spend so much time talking about story, often in a meta sense, that the actual story, Kubo’s literal and figurative sense, often suffers as a result.
While chief animator (and CEO) turned director Travis Knight turns every shot, every image, every sequence into an embarrassment of visual riches, everything from the ripples in Monkey’s fur to the Beetle’s scampering movements, a set piece pitting a giant, ambulatory skeleton against Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle, tangential asides involving a mischievous Kubo and a flock of origami birds, to a life-or-death battle on heavy seas involving Kubo’s aunts and a sailing ship made completely of leaves, and on and on through the suitably big-stakes climax and a moving, poignant, ultimately ambiguous denouement, Kubo and the Two Strings rarely disappoints visually, a testament to the entire production team, not just the stop-motion animators led by Knight. It’s world building unmatched by Laika’s competitors (Pixar, of course, almost always excepted), world building that combines elements of Japanese folk tales, Western (gothic) fairy tales, and the classic hero’s journey (Joseph Campbell edition).
Unfortunately, every story – or rather every “story” with intentionally mythic, meta-textual resonance – at least on film, functions along visual and narrative axes and Kubo and the Two Strings often falls short narratively. The characters throw around the word “story” almost as much as F-bombs in last week’s Sausage Party. Characters spend so much time talking about story, often in a meta sense, that the actual story, Kubo’s literal and figurative sense, often suffers as a result. Add to that – or rather subtract from that – under-motivated characters, plot-based stops, starts, and digressions, and erratic, inconsistent world building (internal rules change arbitrarily and capriciously) and Kubo and the Two Strings falls just short of (near) perfection, but even with those faults in mind, Kubo and the Two Strings easily emerges as one of the summer’s better, more memorable films.
Chief animator-turned-director Travis Knight turns every shot of Kubo and the Two Strings into an embarrassment of visual riches and rarely disappoints visually, while many stories in the film with intentionally mythic, meta-textual resonance fall short narratively.