The Magnificent ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ Shows Just How Lousy Animated Movies Have Become
Coming of age stories are a dime a dozen in the animated movie business. Or at least, they used to be. In 2016, it’s all about animals. From Finding Dory to The Secret Life of Pets, The Angry Birds Movie, Storks, Zootopia and the forthcoming Sing, anthropomorphized animals riddled with highly adult worries and neuroses (particularly about their jobs; a lot of these critters work) rule the screen. This is not entirely a bad thing, as when the modern-day animated movie revolves humans, the result more often results in something like the desperation comedy demolition derby Despicable Me.
Travis Knight’s mythological quest, the stop-motion animation Kubo and the Two Strings, though, ignores this trend entirely and blazes its own fabulist trail. Well, almost entirely. There is a monkey here, and she talks, but, well, it’s complicated. This is a coming of age tale at a more primitive and resonant level, a quasi-animist saga where spirits infuse almost every object and being, while the characters remain deeply and at times overpoweringly human.
Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a lonely child who lives with his mother on the outskirts of a remote village. Every day the one-eyed boy with the eye patch leaves his mother, a physically and emotionally scarred presence whose traumatized quiet fills their small and simple quarters, to go down to the village and play for money. Wielding his guitar like a conductor’s baton, he strums a frantic song about his dead father, the great samurai lord Hanzo. Sheets of origami paper fly out of his backpack and perform a minuet in the air, folding themselves into incredible shapes. It’s a joyful sequence, a sign of just how everyday and yet wonder-filled the film treats the magic that suffuses nearly every gorgeously rendered frame.
Unlike so many coming of age stories, Kubo and the Two Strings doesn’t start in domestic bliss and fight through the drama before restoring the status quo. It begins in sadness and turns quickly to darkness. After trying to communicate with the spirit of his father, Kubo is attacked by a ghostly pair of nightshade assassins, the Sisters (Rooney Mara), whose blank white faces and cruel laughter are about as sinister as the weapons they wield on the orders of his grandfather, the cruel and cackling Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). After this otherworldly dynastic struggle that Kubo barely understands, he flees, thinking that his mother has died protecting him.
The journey that follows is taken partly from Joseph Campbell and partly from the tradition of Japanese kwaidan tales and their ever-shapeshifting entities; an altogether terrifying landscape for a boy on the run. But Kubo is a tough character, already. With his street performer’s hustle and eye-patch glower, Kubo isn’t the usual kind of insecurity-riddled or quip-ready kid common to most animated movies today; he’s a fighter from the jump.
On Kubo’s journey to acquire a suit of Hanzo’s armor, he picks up a pair of companions: Monkey (Charlize Theron, channeling the same brusque warrior impatience she utilized in Mad Max: Fury Road), who isn’t there for cute distraction but stern lessons about the importance of Kubo doing this or that, in order not to die. His more light-hearted companion is Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a giant upright beetle in samurai armor who has a Han Solo-level of misplaced confidence in his own abilities. Together they struggle through a series of epic landscapes ranging from moon-lit seas to haunted forests while being chased by the Moon King and the Sisters.
Coming from Laika, the same stop-motion studio that made an artful masterpiece out of Neil Gaiman’s similarly mythological and emotionally fraught quest story Coraline, it’s little surprise that Kubo and the Two Strings digs into a more darkly impactful narrative than today’s average animated fare. It stays true to a mythological sense of human drama, in which families don’t just band together to fight outside, they sometimes battle each other, with bloody and cruel results.
What’s truly surprising is that Knight, and his writers Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, have strung together their stirring set-piece battles not just with beautiful and richly rendered backdrops but also a sparky, sarcastic sense of humor that deepens instead of cheapens an underlying family dynamic written in loss, sacrifice, betrayal, and bravery.
In a year when the biggest conundrums facing characters in animated movies have generally revolved around crises no larger than getting a promotion (Zootopia, Storks), it’s rewarding to have the likes of Kubo and the Two Strings come along as a reminder that the genre doesn’t need to stoop to succeed. Sometimes, it can soar.
Title: Kubo and the Two Strings
Director: Travis Knight
Writer: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler
Cast (voices of): Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara
Studio: Focus Features
Year of release: 2016
Web site: https://www.kubothemovie.com/