The best fairy tales are the ones that don’t seem like what modern audiences have come to think of as “fairy tales.” While the original purpose of fairy tales was to explain the darkness and dangers of the world in a way that everybody — and in particular children — could understand, it’s come to represent a type of children’s entertainment told in the unchallenging, restrained, but consistently effective language of Disney animated films. Thus, calling Kubo and the Two Strings a “fairy tale” is both completely accurate and completely misleading because it is so very much more than either of those two definitions.
Set in ancient Japan but incorporating elements from a number of other cultures, the story focuses on Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson), a young boy with a missing eye who lives with his mother in a costal cave outside a small village. Kubo tends to his mother, who spends most of her days in a type of catatonic state, her lucid brain only occasionally surfacing to tell Kubo stories of his deceased father. Kubo himself spends his days telling stories in the village that are enhanced by origami sculptures he creates and animates through a unique type of innate magic.
Kubo’s mother constantly warns him not to stay out after dark, but eventually one night he does just that and encounters a pair of wicked beings called the Sisters (Rooney Mary) who want to deliver Kubo to their grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Feinnes). Kubo’s mother uses the last of her own magic to spirit Kubo away to safety and to bring to life a small monkey charm (Charlize Theron) that will guide him to the magic items needed to protect himself from the Moon King. Along the way, they also encounter an amnesiac warrior cursed into the form of a human-sized beetle (Matthew McConaughey) that aids them in their quest.
Don't mess with the monkey.
Kubo and the Two Strings is the latest film from Laika Studios, who have created yet another hauntingy beautiful and emotionally resonant masterwork of animation. Like Coraline and Paranorman before it, Kubo is told primarily through stop-motion animation of the most fluid and hypnotic kind. Unlike both of those films, however, Kubo possesses a type of dramatic weight typically only seen in the deceptively complex and mature work of Hayao Miyazaki.
Director Travis Knight, who also happens to be Laika’s CEO, has a surprisingly deft and able vision for Kubo, made all the more impressive considering this is his first outing as a director. There is nothing truly groundbreaking in his compositions or camera work, although what's there is consistently solid and intriguing. The film alternates between thrilling action sequences and quiet character moments with ease, and the narrative has a dream-like flow that largely avoids feeling episodic or cliched. Knight, along with writers Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, creates a fantastical world that feels like the stuff of legends even though it’s primarily a wholly original story.
Who knew origami could be so fun?
Knight has an eye for stunning visuals and choreography, most apparent in an extended scene where Monkey battles with one of the Sisters on a boat made up of thousands of leaves while Beetle dives below the ocean to rescue Kubo from a monster made up of enormous eye stalks that it uses to hypnotize its victims. Both parts of the scene carry a great deal of dramatic tension in completely different but complimentary ways, and both make excellent use of their respective spaces. The furious grace of the Monkey/Sister duel contrasts with the relatively quiet menace of the below-the-waves rescue in a remarkably efficient and well-structured counterpoint.
The cast is excellent, as has been the case in everything Laika’s produced to date. The name-recognition actors disappear inside their roles in the best ways, and the entire cast imbues their characters with genuine life and spark. Art Parkinson is a natural as Kubo himself, giving him an appealing charm and quick wit that never becomes precocious. Charlize Theron is on point, as she always is, as the stern but loving Monkey, playing well off of Matthew McConaughey’s more comedic and exuberant Beetle. The villains of the piece aren’t always as intriguing, especially since Rooney Mara’s genuinely creepy and piercingly sinister portrayal of the Sisters almost totally overshadows Ralph Feinnes’ relatively restrained Moon King.
Come play with us, Kubo...
One of the most striking things about Kubo is that the film is relatively dark for an animated film, but again, this is one of Laika Studios’ specialities. It strikes a firm and solid balance between the gothic Coraline and the more upbeat Paranorman, but like both of those films, its multi-layered whimsy is in service to a very adult set of themes. Kubo is a story of the power of memory and the magic inherent in storytelling, both of which are made very literal over the course of the film’s runtime.
But at the same time, it is also a metaphor for growing into one’s own power and the steep learning curve that comes with it. Kubo himself has great potential, but he also lacks control, and the road before him is hard and unforgiving. Like the heroes of other Laika films, Kubo is never referred to as a “chosen one”, and his magic is treated as more of a natural talent instead of as something that separates or elevates him from the bulk of humanity. Every character in the film is flawed in some way, but they all also have their own unique skills and strengths that work best when they are combined with others, exemplified perfectly during a thrilling action sequence involving Kubo’s party and a gigantic skeleton creature with fiery eyes.
Three against the world.
While the film has a tremendous amount going for it, its biggest flaw is the fact that like older Disney films, where you might find an African prince voiced by the very Caucasian Matthew Broderick, the main cast is largely made up of non-Asian actors. For a story set in ancient Japan, this seems more than a little problematic. To be sure, the cast is almost uniformly excellent, and most of the supporting cast is made up of Asian actors, including veterans like George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. But it’s something that can’t be ignored, especially in light of whitewashing incidents like Scarlett Johansson cast as the lead in the Ghost In The Shell live-action film. It’s the film’s only major blunder, and it’s only truly apparent when the closing credits run and the cast's names are matched with their characters.
Aside from that, Kubo is a vibrant, emotional, and at all times beautiful film. Its stop-motion animation possesses a texture and otherworldliness that neither live-action nor traditional animation can duplicate, and it has a warmth and depth that even the best CGI has a hard time approximating. It’s an ode to the power of storytelling that manages to tell a powerful story in its own right that each viewer can connect to and enjoy in their own way. Like the best of fairy tales and the best of animation, it is at its core an elementally human experience.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / A-