“If you must blink, do it now.”
It’s as much a boast as a mission statement for Kubo and the Two Strings, a film that demands and earns your absolute rapt attention. A film of remarkable intimacy and sensitivity, as well as breathtaking scale, that wears its meditations on death and who lives, who dies, and how our story is told long after we may leave as much in the subtle folds in the face of its puppets as it does in its largest moments of awe.
This tale is of Kubo (Art Parkinson), a special young boy who tells enrapturing stories with nothing but origami paper and his shamisen gifts. He takes care of his mother (Charlize Theron), barely there during the day but loving and protective by night. He lives in a cave, hidden away from the world of night, for fear that one day his mother’s sisters and her father, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), will find him. They took his eye and they took his father’s life, and they look to take Kubo’s other eye.
And by the law of fairy tale storytelling, Kubo does of course stay, and The Sisters (Rooney Mara) find him. His mother’s protection whisks him away on a journey for the Sword Unbreakable, Armor Impenetrable, and Helmet Invulnerable, the pieces of a legendary armor his father once sought and the only way he can defeat the Moon King. He’s joined on this journey by Monkey (Charlize Theron, pulling double duty), a charm brought to life by his mother’s magic, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), an amnesiac warrior incredibly eager to help Kubo on his quest.
Upfront, the visual prowess of this film is its absolute draw. This is Laika’s fourth film and director Travis Knight’s first work with the studio is by and away their most accomplished as a work of animation muscle. Imbued with an Earthy mysticism and somber awe, the film is an absolute wonder to behold. It’s the sort of technical achievement that leaves you wondering if it could actually be accomplished by stop-motion work, but a credit sequence shows how they did. Sweeping vistas and massive oceans combined with outsized creatures that have the feel of every boss you grappled with on the Super Nintendo, the film could easily get lost in a Laika that’s feeling too confident and going too large.
What’s really fantastic about this one is that it doesn’t. A lot of the visual prowess of this film rests in the small moments, the little looks and the closeups, the tactile physicality that only can come with stop-motion animation. The way Monkey rustles Kubo’s hair. The folds of the paper that make up Kubo’s magic. The subtle changes in expression that had to be done piece by piece. I could write an essay about the way the film does The Sisters, sober and expressionless until their masks break. It’s a stunning work that needs to be seen almost solely on the virtue of having been able to experience.
I don’t feel I have to sell you on the visuals. Those can speak to anyone who has eyes and a soul. Where I feel I’m gonna get a lot of “I saw it and you were wrong!” (Because I get that more often than you’d think) is on the story of this one. I love the story this one tells.
I don’t necessarily love the plot. As a piece of plotting, Kubo is a little bit long in the tooth and a little bit too assumptive. Kubo and the Two Strings is functionally a video game plot, a progression that will feel familiar to those who spent their childhood playing JRPGs (think Final Fantasy or Legend of Zelda ((There will be people who get on to me for that one, I don’t care)). It’s progressing through a series of goals while the skills of those on the quest increase. To reach the next stage, Kubo has to beat the boss. There are recurring villains that pester at every turn. Twists center around reaching the next stage. Again, there’s a far more interesting article to be written on the influence we see games having on films as those who grew up on them get older and older, but that’s not for this review.
It’s also rather like dream-like plotting, the idea that it’s leaving you up to experience what’s happening and piece it all together on the backend. Which I don’t necessarily have a problem with. Film, as a form of sharing stories, only ever makes sense in retrospect. We piece together things as they happen, and as the film asserts, the best stories must have endings to be complete.
But for me, plot is secondary, at all times, to story. What is Kubo ultimately trying to craft is remarkable and beautiful. For all the 80s nostalgia we’re afflicted with, Kubo is a film that earnestly understands why those immortal Spielbergian family films stuck, because they ended up speaking more to children and adults on levels that work for both.
For children, Kubo is a story that helps you understand the place that parents can and do have in your life. By the age Kubo might start to click for a child, you’re getting to the age where you question them, or where you’ve already begun to lose them. Kubo doesn’t lecture, it’s not a “Listen to your parents” after-school special, but it’s a film that aches for that one moment more with someone who can understand you, and who can be there for you. It understands how powerful that urge can be. The parental relationship of Beetle and Monkey to Kubo is done remarkably well, and feels so familiar and tactile.
For adults, Kubo is less Miyazaki or Pixar and far more Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell or Hamilton. It uses an Eastern conception of death, where the dead are always with us in some way or another, to ask the question of how we tell our stories, especially when we’re gone. This is Kubo’s most powerful core, a fundamental question of the effect we have on ourselves and on others and how stories can shape them.
Stories about us and that are told to us become legacy, and is the way that the dead can truly never leave us, even when they pass beyond us. It’s in that that Kubo finds its footing as a story about death, cutting through grief in a way that few films can, by a simple statement that as important as the loved one is, they never truly leave us, and they never stop being important.
More importantly, stories are ultimately who we are. They shape us and create us. It’s a film that understands the place they have in our culture and in our hearts and minds. And what’s particularly amazing for Kubo is that on every level, the story it tells, the tale it weaves has resonance.
And that’s what earnestly is so amazing about Kubo for me. It’s gorgeous, yes. Its plotting is there to get done what it needs to get done. What it gets done as is tell a simultaneously heartbreaking and life-affirming tale of life beyond death in the grand aether of history.
Or, to say it one more time…to grapple on massive scale with who lives, who dies, who tells your story.