Okay. I’m in. My attention grabbed. When the main character is a storyteller with the imagination of an eleven-year old and a childhood full of nothing but time, we are blessed to be the first to hear his new story. Kubo’s mythical tales are adventures of magic, family drama, samurai skill, and some pretty fancy origami for theatrical flare. Danger, mystery, an evil grandfather, a mystic force that’s as hazardous as it is handy, and an extended family that wants to adopt our hero into their powerful kingdom of darkness add up to something that looks like the Japanese exchange student who spent all weekend binge-watching Star Wars.
I don’t want to say too much about Kubo and the Two Strings’ plot because it’s one of those special stories that keep developing from start to finish. But here’s what sets the stage: Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) lives with his mother in a cave near a small village. They’re hiding from Kubo’s grandfather, an evil and powerful man who stole Kubo’s eye when he was a baby. Although Kubo’s mother may suffer from something that resembles Alzheimer’s, when she’s lucid she is sure to warn Kubo never to go out at night, or else his grandfather will find him. So daytime it is. Every morning Kubo feeds his unresponsive mother, sits her in front of the view, and then scurries into town to earn a living telling stories. It’s not a sad life; it’s actually quite pleasant, aside from the repetition. Kubo has a natural talent with paper figures and, if he plays the right notes, they will come alive and perform his stories of the heroic samurai, Hanzo, and his quest for three magical pieces of armour. But every evening, before Kubo can finish, the bell rings and sends him running home before sundown. While Kubo respects his mother, he has a loose opinion of this rule, and sure enough one night Kubo is late coming home. With his grandfather’s messengers now hot on Kubo’s trail, his only chance of protection is to find the three lost pieces of armour from Hanzo’s legend. Thankfully, Kubo has the support of a monkey charm come to life (voiced by Charlize Theron) and a samurai beetle-man (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) with a memory like a goldfish. Now if they can just find all three pieces, Kubo will be safe when the Weird Sisters catch up.
There’s more, but I can’t tell it. Like any good story, Kubo and the Two Strings is more than its first ten minutes. Endearing characters have no choice but to reveal some very good excuses for their passionate protection throughout the film. Kubo and the Two Strings, it turns out, is as much about the colourful adventures of life as it is about the legacy we leave behind. In this case, that legacy is a story worth telling. Some characters are quite aware that they won’t see the end of the quest. For them, the goal is as much about finding the armour as it is about protecting the survivor who will share their story. As the adventure progresses, the story becomes so captivating that there’s no doubt it will spread from listener to listener until it transforms into legend. It’s a charming and peaceful way to imagine immortality. So much in Kubo and the Two Strings shows an effort to find harmony with death. Whether you’ve been touched by the moon king or not, peace is a state of mind that anyone can celebrate.
While this harmonious moral comes to us through danger, risk, fear, and loss, it’s also celebrated on a visual level. Kubo and the Two Strings made an interesting splash in 2016, proving that stop motion animation isn’t just for Shaun the Sheep and Frosty the Snowman. These aren’t your classic playdough cut outs. Kubo and the Two Strings has a unique, paper-like quality in front of a backdrop of sunset colours and an obvious nod to Japanese history. Kubo bends leaves into figurines dancing in the firelight, while following the narration of a monkey that looks simultaneously sharp and fluffy. The animation made me anxious when smoke slithered out of the forest, and calm when paper birds flew above the adventurers. Waves can be gigantic, crashing, CGI mountains or they can be ripples of blue paper weaving in and out; it depends on the mood they’re trying to create. It’s magical and enchanting to watch it all unfold – pun intended.
Kubo and the Two Strings brings together magic, legend, tradition, and family. While the beetle is a little too silly sometimes, and the ongoing amnesia not entirely necessary, he is a slice of humour to balance out the monkey’s seriousness. It’s a fun story to enjoy with kids and a philosophical look at life, death, and legacy for the ponderous crowd. It’s not your usual animated feature, in both design or the story’s layered quality. Kubo and the Two Strings is one I have to see again to appreciate all the plot twists from start to finish. Knowing what I know now that I’ve seen the whole thing, the entire film looks a little different. I didn’t expect a story quite so deep, touching, or meaningful. I appreciate Kubo’s tale for the hour or so of escapism and for the way it transformed my philosophy. I have to give it an affectionate 9/10.