I have a new favourite movie of the year! It’s Kubo and the Two Strings, a pleasant surprise that I knew nothing about before going to see it.
Kubo is a young boy with some pretty neat magical powers. He can bring paper (and anything paper-like) to life by playing his magical shamisen (a three-stringed lute, for my fellow ignorant Westerners), and he can fly. But everything else about his life sucks. He’s never known his father, he has to take care of his mother because she’s catatonic most of the time, and he’s missing an eye. To make things worse, the people responsible for all these problems, his monstrous grandfather and aunts, are still after him. When they finally find the village where he and his mom are hiding, Kubo has to go on a quest to find his father’s magic armour, his only hope of defeating his evil relatives. He’s accompanied along the way by a fighting snow monkey and a forgetful giant beetle (plus his ever-present living origami creatures).
Story aside, this is easily one of the best looking animated movies I’ve ever seen. It’s so gorgeous that the sound could have been turned off and I would still feel like I’d gotten my money’s worth. And it gets even more incredible when you realise that it’s almost all stop-motion. Epic mountain landscapes, terrifying monsters, flocks of paper birds, stormy seas, characters with the full range of human expression–all stop-motion puppetry. The giant skeleton Kubo and Co. fight halfway through the movie? Yeah, that’s an 18-foot-tall puppet. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it puts Pixar to shame.
Oh, and the soundtrack’s lovely, too.
Story-wise, Kubo himself is my favourite thing about the movie. He’s an expert storyteller himself (therefore automatically awesome), and boy, is he good at surviving adversity. I haven’t seen a child protagonist put through the wringer like he is since Oliver Twist. But no matter how much emotional trauma the movie heaps on him, he hangs on to his positive view of the world and never gives up fighting for what he loves. Plus, his magic paper powers are really cool, and he gets to use a sweet samurai sword.
Kubo deals with some pretty heavy stuff for a kids’ movie–which is one of my criteria for a good kids’ movie. Death, and what happens after, is a major theme, as is the power of stories and the importance of honoring one’s true family, even after they’re gone. Even though it’s made by a bunch of Americans, Kubo‘s Eastern philosophical influences are pretty obvious (and, as far as my very limited knowledge goes, pretty accurate).
But its loudest message is one that’s often found in fantasy movies, kid-friendly or not: “Humans are awesome!” The villains are god-like beings that live in “the heavens” (specifically the moon, if Grandfather’s official title, the Moon King, is any indication), and look down on humans for their imperfections and mortality. But all the human and human-like characters are shown to be heroic and brave, while Grandfather’s definition of “perfection” seems to amount to “being a joyless psycho.” So it’s no surprise that Kubo doesn’t fall for the Moon King’s attempts to convince him to come live in the stars. In real life, of course, there are as many “Grandfathers” here on earth as there are Kubos and Monkeys, and from a Christian perspective, the Heavens are our only reliable source of heroism. But as long as we’re telling stories, it’s nice to focus on the positive side of humanity once in a while.
Kubo isn’t perfect. A couple of “twists” near the end were so obvious that it was hard for me to take their “reveals” seriously, and the jokes didn’t all quite land for me. But this has been a terrible summer for movies, so I’m not inclined to complain a lot about the one film that actually tried to be a creative, thought-provoking piece of art.
A note of caution: this movie might be a little too scary for some kids. Kubo’s aunts, the Sisters, are extremely creepy, and like I said, there’s a giant skeleton. And some main characters die in rather upsetting ways. I am personally very much in favour of putting actual danger into kids’ movies, because they’re going to encounter scary stuff sometime, and what better way to get introduced than through an exciting, fictional story where the good guy wins? One can go overboard with the scariness, but I don’t think this movie did. But it all depends on the kid.
And one final note: I think it’s hilarious that this movie cast George Takei (and gave him top billing!) just so he could say “Oh, my” in the trademark tone. ‘Cause that’s pretty much all he does. 🙂