“Memories are powerful things”
The narrator of Travis Knight‘s Kubo and the Two Strings demands us to look closely and never blink. His story delivers fantastical wonders and poignant metaphors concerning family, love, and traditions to uphold if not an archaic remnant of a lost time meant to be broken. We’re to pay attention because details are intentionally only thinly-veiled, alluding to discoveries Marc Haimes and Chris Butler‘s script shortly reveal. A mirroring of roles proves critical to the tale’s resonance, our own dreams as children coaxing the real world into imagination to decipher what’s happening and learn to cope with darker events we cannot avoid. Young Kubo’s (Art Parkinson) destiny might be to defeat the evil Moon King, but this journey is to discover the type of man he will become.
It was Shannon Tindle who pitched the story, fully embracing a love for Japanese culture. He infused it with emotions witnessed on behalf of his wife and her ailing mother, a fact seen during the opening scenes between Kubo and his. She saved him when they were lost at sea years ago, her heroics leaving her with brain damage and a memory all but gone outside of brief moments of clarity that themselves sound like a lunatic’s ravings. She speaks of an epic battle between expert samurai Hanzo and the Moon King: the latter flanked by evil witch-like daughters wielding ancient magic and the former his wife. Kubo adores this adventure’s energy, quickly gleaning its players as stand-ins for Dad and Grandpa—the villain who took his eye.
But what’s real and what’s fiction? How much of this story—that Kubo repackages with his magical shamisen (a lute) to awe the townsfolk with Origami Theater animated from thin air by the melody played—is tinted by a dementia-ridden mind? Kubo’s numerous fans don’t necessarily care, they hang on his every word regardless until the bell signals sundown and the boy’s trek home to his mountain cave with panhandled earnings. Kameyo (Brenda Vaccaro) saves him the best spot, Hashi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) begs for more, and Hosato (George Takei) covers his daughter’s eyes when things get too violent. If only they knew this tale of legendary armor (Sword Unbreakable, Armor Impenetrable, and Helmet Invulnerable) and impossibly nightmarish creatures harboring destruction would soon be knocking at their door.
Suddenly the shamisen song ignites, the evil twins (Rooney Mara) arriving in moonlight under the King’s (Ralph Fiennes) watchful eye. Kubo’s mother gives life to his wooden charm for protection (Charlize Theron‘s Monkey) and a former samurai of his father’s named Beetle (Matthew McConaughey)—cursed in exile without a memory—joins their quest to find the armor and bring peace to the world. They travel The Far Lands’ blizzards, combat personal demons in the water of the Garden of Eyes, and reach the Bamboo Forest for confrontation. A giant skeleton monster attacks as well as the choppy seas, their leafy vessel barely holding together in its storm. And it’s all rendered in LAIKA’s stunning stop-motion, a medium where the cinematography and fluid motions utilized here should be impossible.
Seriously, Kubo and the Two Strings is beautiful and ambitious. LAIKA’s trademarked time-lapse animation vignette during the end credits shows the stunning scale of the skeleton monster attached to a robotic rig and held up at every point of articulation—magical still in practicality. The woodblock homage aesthetic is gorgeous and the characters each a mix of endearing sensitivity and fierce courage. Haimes and Butler inject a ton of humor too, even mocking the craziness of the animators’ job to make the origami folds come to life: “I don’t know if you can call that origami. Scissors must have been used.” Everything shows a keen interest and appreciation in the Japanese look as well as the intensely dark subject matter kids films these days mostly refuse to use.
We’re talking scary imagery a la Jim Henson‘s Dark Crystal. This goes beyond ParaNorman‘s satirical bent—while utilizing similar story beats in its finale of forgiveness replacing redemption—into full-blown terror as the evil twins float with kusarigama in hand and kabuki masked faces lending an even larger sense of clinical coldness to their actions. The scale Knight wields adds to its tension and suspense too, these assumed people-sized characters made to look as small as they are in life opposite the skeleton and ocean height. And the magic moves from parlor trick puppetry to light-charged power waves able to affix Gods onto Earth’s mortal coil. Because beyond its surface adventure through supernatural lands with talking animals by his side, Kubo truly seeks to find mankind’s immortality.
It’s a fight between man and spirit, perishable and infinite. But how it handles story with mother passing to son and son to town reveals a less exacting notion of legacy. As long as people remember who you were and what you did, death is mere inconvenience. They’ll light lanterns at night to sail on the riverbed in honor of your place on Earth and in Heaven. This is how Hanzo embodies a small origami samurai to lead the way for Kubo and friends. The fact that his name can elicit a response in Beetle—a man who knows nothing of his previous life—shows the kind of warrior Hanzo was. His name carries a weight of strength and compassion, his leadership a steadying force even in defeat.
The visual splendor of magic and fantasy is there to steal our attention so its teachings soaked in respect for ancestry permeates our souls. There are many examples of youth holding elderly in dignified reverence whether bonded by blood or not. The opposite is true too in how a town of adults turn into children at the sound of Kubo’s shamisen readying to continue the story they’ve absorbed so intently. No one questions that a boy could save everyone from the Moon King’s destruction. No one really questions how a monkey and beetle can help him either—besides some good-natured joking. The film is steeped in lore from a position of mythological authenticity, a rite of passage epic with morals and themes that speak beyond its unbelievable undertaking.
We fear for these heroes constantly, every encounter with the enemy leaving bruises or worse. Kubo and the Two Strings begins and ends with death, the latter introducing a sense of despair built from the fear of an unknown assailant waiting to pounce while the former provides hope for the future. It shows that death is natural in the physical world and how life lives on in the spiritual one. Sometimes those we care about will try to harm us under the auspices of love, not understanding the error of their deeds. So it’s up to us to realize what truly matters most and strive to do all we can to sustain it. Mankind’s goodness will only endure if we work towards ensuring it will never be forgotten.
 (l-r.) The battle is joined for Monkey (voiced by Academy Award winner Charlize Theron), Kubo (Art Parkinson), and Beetle (Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey) in animation studio LAIKA’s epic action-adventure KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Laika Studios/Focus Features
 Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) faces off against the vengeful Moon King in animation studio LAIKA’s epic action-adventure KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Laika Studios/Focus Features
 Monkey (voiced by Academy Award winner Charlize Theron) finds herself in a fierce battle to protect Kubo in animation studio LAIKA’s epic action-adventure KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Laika Studios/Focus Features