Art Parkinson Charlize Theron

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS Review: Gorgeously Confused

Monday, August 22, 2016 Rob Samuelson

A lot of modern movies don’t try very hard to depict the idea of magic and the way it doubles as a metaphor for storytelling itself. You usually only see flashes of light, beams of color, clouds of indistinct particles wrapping around the enemies of the film's heroes. Kubo and the Two Strings isn’t like that. It makes magic a tangible, tactile thing, grounded in the world we know while being used as a stand-in for things we cannot understand about the world.

Kubo (Art Parkinson, Game of Thrones) is a preteen kid living in a cave with his shell shocked mother (Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road) outside a small village in feudal Japan. His mother is almost entirely mute when the sun hangs in the sky, staring out at the sea for hours. But at night she perks up, delighting her son with tales of his fallen warrior father’s heroic exploits, saving her from her magically-inclined family’s clutches and running off so they could start their family. The fact that Kubo is the only part of that family tells you something about how their hopes and plans were dashed by Kubo’s maternal grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes, animated to look like Peter Cushing from Star Wars), and his identical twin aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara, Carol).

Director Travis Knight and the stop-motion animation team at Laika (Coraline, The Boxtrolls) wrap Kubo’s mother’s stories in layers of meta elements. Light and shadows dance on the walls of the family home-cave, and the piles of paper Kubo keeps around the cave for his own artistic expression float around being shaped by unexplainable forces. Kubo has learned a lot of valuable lessons from his mother and he puts them in action in the small village down the road.

Kubo’s street performances, in which his multicolored papers twist and crinkle into iconic shapes -- samurai, dragons, and larger-than-life weapons -- captivate villagers, who hang on every word like he is the medieval version of the latest watercooler TV show. He never finishes his epic tale, though, because he knows that if he gives an ending to his retelling of his parents’ story, it will mean his connection to his never-seen father is truly in the past. In the villagers, Kubo has a surrogate family waiting for him to fully embrace them, but he is too enamored with the connection he has with his long gone blood relatives to see this would-be support system.

The movie reflects its protagonist’s sense of denial, but not always in satisfactory ways. Once the plot proper kicks in, Kubo’s support group becomes Monkey (also voiced by Theron at her sternest), Beetle (Matthew McConaughey doing his best dim bulb impression), and a red, voiceless Origami samurai figure who serves as the group’s compass on their quest to defeat the Moon King and the Sisters.

The magically-imbued members of Kubo’s quest crew have strong connections to his blood relatives. It keeps Kubo and the Two Strings from embracing the other kinds of family a person can have once they experience tragedy. There is a mental block in Kubo himself, but that does not mean the movie should deal with the same block of relying solely on one’s biological relatives for support. Other people can fill in without replacing the lost relatives. But the movie often makes it feel like it’s “blood parents or bust,” even when it may mean to convey the opposite.  

The “two strings” of the film’s title are a far stronger metaphor for how to deal with the loss of his family. They form the basis of Kubo’s eventual acceptance of his new world order. Pieces of his parents get wrapped around his wrist as reminders of their places in his heart. The title is literal, with two strings tied to him. They are simple but elegant remembrances, physical things Kubo can hold onto when he misses his family. This is no different from hanging onto your father’s favorite coffee mug or your mother’s beloved blanket after they pass -- a bittersweet way to keep them with you while still acknowledging they have left. This is both grounded in realism and one of the movie’s most magical elements.

Despite sometimes jumbling its thematic message, Kubo and the Two Strings is consistent in its visual thrills. Knight and the Laika crew designed and executed a world that recalls the Origami artwork of Kubo’s village performances. Smoothness is hard to find in the animation -- sharp edges are everywhere. Characters move in a way that is not quite fluid, just a step below reality. This allows the filmmakers to explore the meta narrative of the power of simple stories to transport us to places we cannot see for ourselves, to meet people who have long since left us, to have the adventures in our dreams that the laws of physics won’t allow.

The movie speaks to different kinds and scopes of storytelling, as well. When Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle go into battle with a three-story skeleton, they visualize the fantastical myths that grow common around campfires. When they sail across the sea in a boat held together by Kubo’s imagination, it’s like a glimpse into the mind of a child reading her first fantasy novel -- the boat struggles to hold together as the reader’s mind wanders between sentences, but in the end a world has grown inside the kid’s head. And when Kubo takes on the Moon King, he fills in the blanks of his own personal history, like a memoirist using his autobiography to come to a stark realization about why he does the things he does.

Kubo and the Two Strings can struggle to find its footing with the lessons it wants to tell, but its use of imagination as a concept is infectious. Its ideas about Kubo’s parents and their connection to his journey can sometimes come off a little confusing, but the journey itself is so dazzling. It doesn’t always hit the ball with the sweet spot of the bat (or in this case, the three-stringed guitar), but when it does the ball flies out of the ballpark.

Kubo and the Two Strings
Director: Travis Knight
Writers: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler, Shannon Tindle
Starring: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara
Rating: Three-and-a-half stars out of five

Available in theaters now

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