The opening lines of Kubo and the Two Strings set the tone for this adventure film that entices the audience as much with the story as it does with the art style. While I’ve personally always considered stop motion animation to be a lot of work for little reward, Kubo certainly proves that there is still value in the style, having created an aesthetic and a story in which stop motion is the only viable style that could work. It was a surely a lofty endeavor, with one particular scene taking apparently nineteen months to shoot, the movie also boasts the largest stop motion puppet ever utilized – a sixteen foot tall skeleton, which I could imagine was as imitating to work on in production as it was in the final product.
As an animated film with a PG rating, Kubo is what many would consider to be a children’s movie. However, this does not hold the story back from dabbling in some very heavy thematic elements. From the introduction of the film, we see a young boy who is faced with caring for himself and his mother, who spends most of her days in a catatonic state, by cooking, cleaning, and performing as a storyteller, using music and magic to bring life to origami figures, in a nearby village for enough money to feed himself and his mother daily. We learn through Kubo’s conversations with his mother that Kubo’s father was killed when Kubo was a baby, and while Kubo couldn’t remember his father, we can tell that his death hangs over Kubo’s head daily. After a brief introduction of Kubo’s character and story, Kubo is also faced with the loss of his mother, who sacrifices herself to save Kubo from his aunts and grandfather, celestial beings who view the mortal world as petty and repulsive. Symbolic of their viewpoint is Kubo’s family crest, a beetle – a lowly insect – which represented the clan of Kubo’s father, a legendary samurai. However, mortality, in the end, proves to be the factor that defines true strength. While Kubo’s grandfather, the Moon King, revels in his superiority over humans, believing that his own blindness is an asset that allows him to block out the struggles and weakness of the people below. However, the journey of loss and his care for his loved ones is what give Kubo the strength to complete his quest and stand up to the Moon King.
Accompanying the idea that through struggle we find our strength, the internal conflict that we all experience on a daily basis is manifested in the movie in the form of his traveling companions in his quest: a monkey brought to life by Kubo’s mother from a small wooden charm that Kubo carried on him, an warrior who has been turned into a human beetle with no memories, and a small papercraft samurai, the likeness of Kubo’s father. The monkey represents caution and restraint. While not afraid, by any means, she is still always insisting on holding back. Don’t make a move until you know exactly what you’re doing, and what’s going to happen. The beetle, on the other hand, is more headstrong. For him, the only way to move is forward. Win or lose, you won’t know until you do it. Hanzo, the paper man, simply points, representative of the goals we set for ourselves. Kubo relies on critical thinking, and represents the value in recognizing your own strength, and using it to forge your own path. He learns to balance restraint and ambition to meet his goals.
The movie breathes life into the art style through the music that compliments it so well. Kubo himself plays a Shamisen, a stringed instrument that is played much like a guitar, to bring his origami creations to life. The ambient music of the film helps to convey the weight or levity of the scene, in just the way a proper soundtrack should. Doubly impressive, however, is how the soundtrack serves to compliment Kubo’s performances, even as two entirely separate compositions. Additionally, those who stick around for the credits are treated to a cover of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, performed by Regina Spektor, and appropriately stylized to fit the influences of the movie.
As a whole, Kubo and the Two Strings is an impressive adventure film, where all the elements of the movie serve to compliment one another to form what deserves to be recognized as a fully realized work of art. Unfortunately, it would appear that, of the five feature length films produced by Laika Studios, Kubo has performed the lowest from a monetary standpoint, particularly in theaters. While this is unsurprising from an advertising standpoint (compared to the likes of Paranorman, Corpse Bride, and Coraline), as advertising for Kubo seemed almost nonexistent, even around release. If I had to guess, however, I would say that box office records will mean very little for Kubo and the Two Strings in the long run. Slowly but surely, I would guess that this movie will see its revival as more movie enthusiasts come to discover it.
So, have you seen the movie yet? Was there anything that stood out to you thematically or artistically that wasn’t covered here? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.