KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS continues Laika’s string of arresting, unconventional stop-motion animated films that are both sophisticated and enchanting. Like PARANORMAN and CORALINE, KUBO is audacious enough to tackle serious subjects and to do so with no pretense about the finality of death, or the reality of evil. Taking its cue from Joseph Campbell’s theory of the hero’s journey, with a dash of the Perseus myth for some specifics, KUBO is a wondrous adventure imaginative enough for kids, and intelligent enough to keep their parents just as enraptured.
The eponymous Kubo (Art Parkinson) was washed up on a shore with his mother while still an infant. As he tells us in the opening narration, having lost one of his eyes to his evil grandfather was the least of the problems. For 10 years, Kubo and his mother have lived as exiles, Kubo caring for his troubled, mostly catatonic mother by cooking her meals, tucking her in, and telling wildly entertaining stories to the kindly inhabitants of the local village, who show their appreciation by throwing coins and coming back for more. That the stories are illustrated with origami figures that come to life when Kubo plays his magic shamisen (which has >three< strings, please note) is only part of the power of the stories Kubo tells of a brave samurai and his battles against the evil Moon King.
When Kubo learns of a festival where the living can speak to the dead, he breaks one of his mother’s strictest rules and stays outside after sundown in order to finally be able to speak to his father. What follows is far worse than even Kubo could have imagined, destroying the village, killing his mother, and sending him on his way armed only with the last of his mother’s magic in the form of Monkey (Charlize Theron), a no-nonsense guardian brought to life from a monkey charm, and a silent origami figure of a samurai whose sword as true as a compass needle when it comes showing Kubo the path to take.
What ensues are stories within stories, each more enthralling than the last, and an odyssey through the mystical Far Lands, where danger arrives in many ways, usually with glowing eyes, and the quest for the three parts of a magical suit of armor once owned by his father is aided by a brash beetle of a samurai (Matthew McConaughey) with no memory and a penchant for unfortunate puns.
For all the wonder of animation that includes self-organizing ships made of leaves, and sub-aqueous gardens of ice, the true magic in KUBO is found in the characters, starting with the titular character, who is brave, but also essentially a little boy on the verge of manhood struggling with his sense of loss and his desire for family. He may not flinch (much) when confronted with a giant skeleton bearing down on him, but he will also kick a rock while sulking after being told he can’t play with the Unbreakable Sword after he has found it. His relationship to Monkey, slightly intimidated and yet playful, is the beating heart of the film. For comic relief, there’s Beetle, whose bold cluelessness is oddly inspiring. Indeed, the most salient question the film addresses is to ask a character, after he has done something amazing, is if he knew he could do that. The answer is usually no, and the lesson of that as a take away is profound.
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS does not stint on hair-raising escapes and seemingly impossible obstacles, particularly in the form of two uncanny sisters (Rooney Mara) who glide rather than walk on their way to snatch Kubo away. The melding of the macabre and the beautiful is never achieved more perfectly than with them. But there is so much more going on, from the metaphysical implications of origami paper, to the denouement that is a masterpiece of finding happiness in an imperfect world. This is a transcendent film of astute insights that resonate with the heart.
PS: Stay through the credits for a peek at how Laika brought one of its more terrifying monsters to life.