A young boy whose parents have died must go on a quest to find the armor that will protect him from his evil aunts and grandfather. Set in ancient Japan, Kubo and the Two Strings seems to have the beginnings of a typical Disney tale—an orphan endangered by an evil villain—but it has the added cultural heft of an old folk tale and the dark nature of the original fairy tales.
Young Kubo is a storyteller, and his stories have the added power of his shamisen, a guitar-like instrument that brings origami characters to life as he strums it. Kubo wears a patch over one eye because his grandfather, the Moon King, took that eye at his birth; his mother warns him that her father still wants to take the other eye. His aunts—her sisters—are witch-like creatures who come after Kubo when he is vulnerable. So, yes, this is, at times, a rather dark story.
The tale loosely revolves around the Japanese tradition of honoring one’s ancestors. Early on, Kubo visits his father’s grave as part of a festival. He is frustrated that others seem to find comfort and joy in the memories of their family, but he does not. As the story progresses, Kubo confronts ancestors who have left him with unhappy memories, and he must make his own path. Two companions on his journey are loving and protective, and their sacrifices on his behalf only make him more powerful against his grandfather. Some elements of Kubo’s quest are reminiscent of The Odyssey or Raiders of the Lost Ark—traps that Kubo must avoid, certain items that he must acquire at great peril. Yet the film feels wholly original.
I couldn’t help but wonder as I watched why the main characters are voiced by white actors like Scarlett Johannson and Matthew McConaughey (though they did the job ably) instead of by Japanese or Japanese-American actors. Apparently, I’m not alone in that feeling, because the Media Action Network for Asian Americans is asking the same question. However, that did not detract from my enjoyment of the movie.
This animated film is as much for adults as for children. I suggest you don’t take your youngest kids, as they may find it quite terrifying. On the other hand, the older children at the screening I attended were mesmerized. The combination of stop-motion and digital animation are used to great advantage. There are glorious scenes of beauty and creativity throughout; floating lanterns, a ship on the sea, and Kubo’s animated-origami storytelling make the most of the big screen and the animators’ talents. The offbeat tale won’t be for everyone, but my daughters and I were enthralled for the entire 102 minutes. Stick around for the credits to get a taste of what goes into stop-motion animation.
While viewers may wish to help their children compare the movie’s perspective on ancestors and the afterlife with our own Christian beliefs about those things, the melancholy final moments of the film and the grandfather’s story are unusually redemptive. Kubo finds that his parents’ deaths do not mean that they are vanished from his heart, and he discovers the power of forgiveness and mercy. In theaters now. (Universal)