“If we hold our stories deep in our hearts, you will never take it away from us.” Kubo, the titular hero of Laika Studios’ latest feature, Kubo and the Two Strings, declares this in the film’s climactic showdown. He is facing off with his grandfather, the immortal Moon King, and, with his declaration, he is opting for humanity and mortality, for love and for pain and grief, instead of the immortality his grandfather can offer.
Somehow, some way, he is speaking neither in childish defiance, nor in the kind of proverb a boy his age could not realistically be expected to utter. He is speaking rawly and truly and sentimentally. His story contains a hard-won lesson for us all.
I don’t say this lightly, and I don’t say it because I’ve barely seen a decent movie in 2016: Kubo and the Two Strings is everything I hope for in a film.
Its characters are rich and textured, and their story is engrossing. Kubo is a young Japanese boy of mysterious parentage and magical powers, who sets off on a quest to find three pieces of armor that will protect him from his aforementioned grandfather, voiced by Ralph Fiennes, and his two aunts, both voiced by Rooney Mara, who seek to blind him (already having taken an eye from him at a young age) and bring him in to their immortal fold. His only two friends/protectors are a transformed Monkey, voiced by Charlize Theron, and a samurai Tin Man of sorts, Beetle, voiced by Matthew McCounaghey.
The particulars of his magical powers and the path of his quest allow Laika to flex their visual muscles in stunning fashion. There is the way Kubo turns origami paper in to a swirling, dizzying, levitating three-dimensional story merely by strumming his instrument. There is an ornate ship constructed entirely of fallen leaves and held together with magic. There is a massive skeleton with samurai swords stuck in its head that feels like a missing set piece from an unseen Indiana Jones film.
Somehow, all of this is possible with a combination of stop-motion animation and CGI. Were the story itself not so captivating, you might otherwise spend most of Kubo and the Two Strings wondering how the heck they did this or that or the other thing and be plenty amused.
Kubo has much in common with its fellow Laika Studios features (though upon first viewing, I would argue that it is clearly the best of the bunch). It is a little bit darker than most other family fare out there, a little bit more measured, a great deal less concerned with cheap parenthetical laughs that would more obviously cater to its most obvious intended audience.
It also has a ton in common thematically with Pixar’s most recent smash hit, Inside Out. That film dealt with the not-so-kid friendly theme of embracing your emotions even when those emotions leave you feeling blue. And so it is with Kubo and the Two Strings, a film whose protagonist loses both of his parents (and more), and, yet, when offered a route away from all that heartache resolves to carry on. Kubo is a champion of the human spirit, despite all that happens to him and despite a very obvious way to escape it.
Kubo and the Two Strings isn’t nearly as funny as Inside Out, but it is every bit as good. It doesn’t have as much time for cheap laughs because so much of its energy is devoted to a heartfelt tale told with jawdropping visual wonder.
Unless you’re the Moon King, this is a story you shouldn’t have any trouble holding deep in your heart.