When we lose someone, we don’t just lose them once. We repeat their loss with ourselves over and over again, each times different and further distorted. Those distortions can lend vivid new insight, but they can also cloud us to the truth of our relationships to them. That intense sense of loss, playing out extensively over time, is as often downplayed in child-oriented animation as the trope of parental death is utilized. Bambi, Cinderella and Simba all seem to live a relatively upbeat, well adjusted lifestyle in spite their immense parental absence, not entirely untouched by grief, but still not meaningfully investigating it.
Kubo and the Two Strings begins with a roiling undercurrent of loss and absence, which only becomes more pervasive as the film goes on. And yet there’s just as much beauty, thrilling adventure and joy as there is heartache. “Life has a funny way of keeping things balanced,” as one character realistically puts it.
Something of an extensively revisionist take on Japanese folktale “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”, putting the power and agency back in the moon princess’ hands where Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya delicately traced its descent, Kubo is as much the titular boy hero’s story as it is his mother’s. Living safely in a mountain cave overlooking a small village, Kubo (voiced by Game of Thrones‘ shunted Stark kid, Art Parkinson) spends his days entertaining the village-people with magical origami stories of bizarre monsters and the legendary samurai Hanso, Kubo’s father, who defeated them. His story never reaches its somber finish, as Kubo must return home before nightfall to care for his emotionally traumatized mother, our evolved and emancipated Kaguya.
There’s both joy and melancholy in their isolation, both differently outcast from their families. It’s not long before the ghosts of their past return in the form of Kubo’s sinister aunts (a silkily menacing Rooney Mara), their faces hidden under unsettling Noh masks, and his grandfather, the evil moon king (Ralph Fiennes, oozing calm menace with casual fervor). Their idyllic life shattered, Kubo is thrust on a compulsory, yet breathtaking, quest to reclaim his father’s armor, aided by vestiges of his mother’s magic and his father’s samurai heritage, respectively, in the sternly maternal Monkey (Charlize Theron, again channeling the caution and trauma that made her Mad Max: Fury Road‘s surprise standout) and the endearing amnesiac Beetle (Matthew McConaughey, his well-meaning charisma the film’s most vividly empathetic bit of casting).
Even as the film takes off into incredibly stylized fantasy sequences, its core spectacle remains its characters’ crumbling emotional lives. Even before the film pushes the personal strands of his family in the gripping third act, Kubo is constantly walking through graveyards, skeletons, ruins and carcasses. His companions, too, are practically faded, impressionistic versions of his now distant parents. Though his memories of his loved ones are increasingly ephemeral, they’re not nearly as warped as those held by his aunts and the moon king. Anyone who’s dealt with a family member forcing their beliefs and ideals on them will recognize the trio’s toxic outrage at their daughter/sister for choosing what they perceive as the wrong way to live. That love-twisted-into-contempt feeling is unnervingly captured in Mara and Fiennes’ venomous voice work.
There’s so much talk of desiring a happy ending in Kubo that you start to feel like the film, and the characters, are trying to convince themselves there’s no heartache or pain in their stories. Audiences may thrill at the wild fantasy and jovial humor, but these tales’ underpinnings are somber, and Kubo and the Two Strings shows how denying them can lead to bitterness, distortion and a deliberate denouncing of one’s own humanity. Pain and loss aren’t things to be ignored, but addressed and nurtured in the hopes of growing through them. It doesn’t take dexterity to recognize the value of that moral, but Laika Entertainment never sugarcoat their films’ heavy concepts for a second.
What resonates so deeply about Kubo isn’t simply the dark emotions it plumbs, but the degree of profound care and compassion they bring to every detail. The characters’ faces all feel as distinctly architectured as the mythic landscapes they travel through – one elderly villager’s face is a dazzling collection of crumples and wrinkles, as if each holds an idea or a story of their own. Such concrete tethers are important for a film that employs much digital effects wizardry to achieve the scale and grandeur its story requires.
And as Kubo and the Two Strings is as much a work of musical collaboration as physical, Dario Marianelli imbibes every gorgeously constructed second of the film with operatic intensity and delicate playfulness. It may underhanded to say that the film’s most memorable musical cue isn’t solely from him, but the film closing, strings section riff on The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” perfectly encapsulates the meaningful sadness anchoring all acts of creation.
Bottom Line: A dazzling epic of stop-motion wizardry, Kubo and the Two Strings is a powerfully cathartic tale of loss and aching remembrance.