Fairy tales, for all of their splendor and magic, are built upon mutating tragedy and strife into digestible bits. They wrap their morality plays in sweeping epics of romance, adventure, and rousing entertainment as a way to explain the dangers of everyday life. Kubo and the Two Strings openly plays with these conventions, beginning with Kubo imploring us to pay attention to the stories he tells as they will reflect his journey.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a delicate, nuanced portrait of healing from loss and grief, with a healthy dose of the power of imagination and creativity. Like its brethren Coraline and ParaNorman, Kubo and the Two Strings is another beautiful, emotionally complex stop-motion masterpiece from Laika. With Studio Ghibli temporarily shuttered, Laika is the best animation studio currently in operation. Laika knows that the best animated films, the ones that we continually return to as cultural iconography and hold up as artistic high-water marks, are those that operate at multiple levels.
Like the best of children’s literature (think of Roald Dahl’s books) or films (Pinocchio), Kubo and the Two Strings is not afraid of going dark. A sense of impending peril hovers over Kubo from the first frame until the last. He learns hard lessons about life, and he learns them frequently. I mean, this is a film that opens with his mother getting capsized during a thunderstorm, hitting her head against a rock, and fearing that her infant child possibly drowned. Any other American studio would balk at so dark an introduction, but this is merely prelude to a very rich film.
Mythologies are built upon familial strife where generations must do battle on a grand scale to overcome their conflicts. Kubo is an orphaned Japanese boy who cares for his mother after her injury, and listens intently while she tells him stories about his dead father. He must never go out at night for fear that the Moon King, his grandfather, and wicked aunts will track him down. Much of this is presented as daring adventure and thrilling action, but look deeper for what is going on. Kubo is dealing with the deterioration of a parent, the harm of abusive family members, the dissolution of a family unit, and the pain of losing a loved one. Strong, heady stuff that’s wrapped up in glossy, candy-coated visuals that makes the bitter medicine easier to swallow.
Then there’s the strength of Kubo’s subtler message about using your talents as an outlet for grief. Kubo’s two strings is eventually revealed, and I won’t spoil the surprise, but it has something to do with the musical instrument he plays throughout. This instrument, a shamisen, was a source of magical powers for his mother, and Kubo demonstrates his own developing mastery and sorcery skills by playing the instrument. His origami creations are only hindered by his ability to imagine them.
In the beginning, Kubo uses his limited skills to entertain the villagers with stories of daring samurais battling with horrific monsters and gigantic beasts. By the end, Kubo is able to conjure these pieces of paper into birds that help him fly, a miniature version of his deceased father that acts as moving compass, and generate powerful blasts of magic from the strings. As his ability to process his grief grows, so too does his ability to harness his magical abilities to save himself and his two protectors, a monkey and a beetle-like humanoid. Kubo’s art is his greatest weapon against his tormentors, and the strongest source of healing and calming in his life. It’s a metaphor that’s developed with consummate skill and rich intricate details.
Pieces of culture, namely the myths and stories that are the backbone of it, are strongly felt in the monsters and magical world Kubo encounters. There’s a gigantic red skeleton with swords stuck in its head, an undulating tooth-filled mouth at the bottom of the sea surrounded by yellow eyes, and the Moon Beast, a creature that looks like a combination of a centipede and a Dunkleosteus. Even the frightening twin sisters that chase after Kubo are decorated in Noh masks and long cloaks, looking like a nightmarish anime witches come to three-dimensional life. You can’t help but think back to the whimsical, quirky, ornately designed monstrosities that Ray Harryhausen designed and their eternal influence upon these films while watching these moments.
Kubo and the Two Strings borrows the emotional textures and story structure of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and throws them into a visual world that plays like Hayao Miyazaki remaking an Akira Kurosawa film. These contrasting tones and styles actually merge well together given the strong point-of-view the film contains throughout. Here is a film that earns the description “magical,” not just for the visually delightful ways to entertains us, but the ways it engages every member of the audience at different levels. If I had my way, this would be taking home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature this year.