Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler
story by Shannon Tindle and Marc Haimes
directed by Travis Knight
Rating: 4 / 4 – Excellent
Something peculiar happens once you have children, and I’m not talking about the lack of sleep, worrying, and other unpleasant side effects of procreation, all of which I have touched upon elsewhere in this blog. No, I am talking about the realization that you are now responsible for a new life, a life that will develop and hopefully become a fully realized human being. And with that responsibility comes a gnawing fear: What if you don’t make it? What if your life is cut short and you can’t help your child grow? Because let’s face it, any number of things could happen – illness, earthquakes, tripping at Olive Garden and breaking your neck in a bowl of flavorless pasta. I’m no pessimist, but believe me, once kids come into the picture you can’t escape occasionally thinking about these things.
The spectre of death hovers over Kubo and the Two Strings – the astounding fourth film from animation studio Laika – like a soft mist, giving it a deeply touching presence that is really unlike anything I’ve felt in a long time. The story is basically a family drama steeped in magical fantasy: Kubo, a one-eyed Japanese boy, goes on a mystical quest accompanied by a talking monkey (his mom) and a samurai beetle (his dad). In the process he must face all sorts of dangers, including two evil assassins (his aunts) and the nefarious entity known as the Moon King (his grandpa), who wants to strip Kubo of his humanity. And you thought your family had issues.
Technically, the film is a marvel to behold, taking stop-motion to dizzying new heights. From a fight with a giant skeleton to a sea of hypnotic eyeballs, Laika is really upping the game, surpassing even their very own Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012). Throughout there are themes of myth, storytelling, family, and love, colored with the rich narratives of Eastern lore and magic. But the thing that struck me most about it was its melancholic tone. As I watched it with my wife and four-year-old, my thoughts kept going to the ones I had lost, and even though I am not a big believer in the concept of an afterlife, the idea of memory and how it can keep the spirit of your loved ones alive still resonated fully. In the film’s final image, Kubo stands with the aura of his parents (yes, they die) next to him, comforting, gone but still guiding their son… and I wondered how my own boy would carry on if my wife or I were to prematurely depart. I sure hope no one saw me crying.
Much like Inside Out (2015), Kubo and the Two Strings is a movie about life and how happiness and sadness exist together in one rather beautiful whole. And just like life, that’s a very, very difficult thing to pull off.
The bar has been raised. Ball’s in your court, Pixar.
Carlos I. Cuevas