In the early days of stop motion animation, you used to catch a wonderful bit of filmmaking forensics: a fingerprint in the clay or fur that reminded you that in the space between frames, there was a person who passed into the miniature world and made it move. Even in traditional and computer-generated animation there is a mythic seal, a ring of salt around the zone of the movie’s world that creators may work on, but into which no one has ever gone. Not so with stop motion. Every frame holds within it the promise to have a full, tactile three dimensions, a tiny stage: zooming out would reveal the limits of its world, and the hands that feed it its special magic.
Now in computer animation, we no longer see the fingerprints of those who touch the people of that world. As Kubo and the Two Strings proves, this does nothing to disperse its allure or obscure the touch of humans hidden beneath the movements of what some would call a cartoon. There has never been a better argument than this, to preserve the human in the animation machine. Just by the hands that move the models, by viewing something actually touched by a person, you will believe that plasticine can be people too.
A woman -- and we know by her eyes that she must be called Mother -- winces in the surf of a storm, clutching a baby. She looks with mythic calm on the waves, strums a shamisen, then dashes against the rocks and churns up onto a beach. “If you must blink,” a voice says, “do it now.” We believe that voice because what we’re seeing is real and more than real, with a kind of eerie awe that would be better compared to a dream than to a Disney film.
The voice belongs to Kubo (Art Parkinson) who takes care of his comatose Mother in their shadowy cliffside cave by the sea. Every evening she wakes up for a few precious hours to be his mom, to cook and tell him stories and embarrass him by comparing his good looks to his dead father’s. She warns him never to be outside the cave after dark, or his doll-like phantom aunts and grandfather, the ethereal Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), will come for him as they did for his father, and as they did when he was an infant and took one of his eyes.
In this way, Kubo weaves its story with the mythologist Joseph Campbell’s pattern, which he called the “monomyth,” by telling a story about a boy and his Mother as though any culture would understand its symbols, as though it represented all boys and all Mothers. She is Rhea, protecting Zeus from Kronos. She is Jocasta rebelling against King Laius, unwittingly falling for her strapping son, Oedipus. She is Igraine, who must give up her son Arthur so that he may one day rule the world. She is Thetis, dipping her son Achilles by the ankle into the river Styx to give him his power. She is Mary, telling her son Jesus tales of his true father (what son knows his father by any name but God?).
By remaining outside after dark, Kubo invokes the quest for three sacred pieces of armor so that he may defeat the Moon King. Along the way, he bonds with Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), both of which have a hidden story to tell. Though all the actors give impressionable performances, McConaughey’s being most comedic and Fiennes’ being most subtle, Theron as the ineffable Japanese Macaque steals every scene with snark to spare. Her animation is also the most meticulous—the knowing viewer will recognize the spirit of Ray Harryhausen (remember the chess-playing baboon from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad?), or at least the more well-known artifacts by master matte-maker Willis O'Brien, whose King Kong and Mighty Joe Young still set the standard for apes in movies.
Monkey’s spry comedy gets perfect sarcastic depth through Theron’s glacial, motherly tone. What’s her best moment? Is it a multi-tiered swordfight against the porcelain phantom called Sister (Rooney Mara) in the dark and rain, on a black sea threatened by lightning? Or is it a sarcastic snarl as she licks her hand and pats down Kubo’s cowlick? Both are equally effective, but today I’ll call the second’s humane punchline the greater feat, if for no other reason than how rare that kind of subtlety has become.
I won’t delve any deeper into its plot, but I’ll leave this note on its story: Kubo and the Two Strings has within it a primal energy to orally create the story before you, in the act of viewing, such that it feels more ancient than animation could possibly be, or is “animation” in the same sense that Paleolithic cave paintings were. At a certain point, you must realize that the film is “real” only at the discretion of its storyteller (Kubo, in this case) and like all mythmaking has at its center this shrewd oracle reforming the story to match the viewer’s gaze. Who’s to say that any of it happened at all? You are, of course, you the viewers. It is your place to wonder and to be in wonder, yours to scale the colossus of a skeleton warrior giant and brave forbidden seas on a maple-leaf barge and chuckle in the salty air between a Beetle and a Monkey.
Kubo and the Two Strings barely made back its budget, likely because it too closely resembles the wonderment of a child, which has never in history resembled a parent’s expectations of the wonderment of a child (which are invariably much, much smaller). To that, I say: thank goodness! If it had done better, the gurus at Laika might have been flung into the wild unknowns of market research and corporate conglomeration, forced to produce films as feckless as their competitors’, likely featuring plucky talking animals preaching social issues and pleasing parents everywhere.
Instead, let Laika claw, strain, fight! Let them struggle with their art against the masses that paid fifteen times as much to see dogs goof around in their poopy in The Secret Life of Pets. Let them hunger and subsist only on the reckless autumnal fantasia of wonderment on display in Kubo and the Two Strings. Let them die out like any star, and let audiences see the light of its explosion only years later, parked into a seat at Ice Age 8, with only the vaguest flicker at the corner of their eye, to turn as though they saw something, blink once, and turn back to the farting squirrels as though nothing had happened.
As it was to the old orators, it's up to you to tell and retell this story. For those that love it, it will change at every viewing. And it will never grow old.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
|Marc Haimes (screenplay by)|
|Chris Butler (screenplay by)|
|Shannon Tindle (story by)|
|Marc Haimes (story by)|
|Kubo (voice)||Art Parkinson|
|Monkey (voice)||Charlize Theron|
|Moon King (voice)||Ralph Fiennes|
|Kameyo (voice)||Brenda Vaccaro|
|Hashi (voice)||Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa|
|Mari (voice)||Meyrick Murphy|
|Hosato (voice)||George Takei|
|The Sisters (voice)||Rooney Mara|
|Beetle (voice)||Matthew McConaughey|
|Minae (voice)||Minae Noji|
|Aiko (voice)||Alpha Takahashi|
|Miho (voice)||Laura Miro|
|Ken (voice)||Ken Takemoto|