101 min. | PG
In the central plaza of a seaside Japanese village long ago, a one-eyed boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is surrounded by an enraptured audience. Playing his shamisen—a three-stringed instrument—Kubo brings to life a succession of origami figures, part of a performance about a warrior on a quest who battles monsters. It’s an archetypal tale, nested inside another archetypal tale, a hero’s journey about bravery and family connections. Kubo isn’t just telling a story, he’s telling the story.
The setting is in many ways incidental to the stop-motion Kubo and the Two Strings, although there’s a delightful specificity to the village and its inhabitants. Like all of the greatest stories, this one is about something bigger than its surface narrative. And the magical movie-making isn’t just an astonishing feat of visual imagination, but a celebration of what stories give us.
Kubo’s quest involves many elements so familiar from the culture-spanning mono-myth. Mystery and magic surrounds his parentage: a prologue shows his sorceress mother bringing him as an infant across the sea to safety after his father’s death. Years later, Kubo’s threatened by the same powers that stole his eye—his mother’s witchy sisters and his grandfather, the Moon King. Only three enchanted objects can protect him, and Kubo must set out to acquire them, accompanied by a monkey (Charlize Theron) and a samurai transformed into a man-sized beetle, whose only human memories are of serving Kubo’s father.
If Kubo were nothing more than its unique style, it still would be one of the year’s most remarkable films—not animated films, but films, period.
Director Travis Knight oversees a characters designed with a distinctive sharpness. Action sequences are magnificently choreographed, highlighted by a battle between our three protagonists and a massive creature made of bones, and a confrontation between Monkey and one of the evil sisters on a sinking ship made of leaves. The comic relief is low-key, anchored in the characters. Individual shots are breathtakingly beautiful, none more so than a river covered in lanterns floating into the sunset.
The heart of Kubo, however, lies in how the screenplay builds its thematic framework on a much more expansive foundation than the story itself. It explores our need to reach out to the generations before us for wisdom and guidance, and the way that legends serve that need. It touches on the power of humanity, what pulls us together, and what makes us fight for one another. It recognizes art—music, a paper figure, a tale of a warrior—as some of the most potent magic for defeating despair.
If the three-stringed instrument seems confusing in light of the film’s title, rest assured that Kubo and the Two Strings handles that issue in an almost unbearably heartbreaking manner. Everything’s build on allegory and metaphor, but never feels like an academic lesson. This film is crafted with soaring ambition. What better lesson to convey to children: showing them why we tell stories, how transcendent they can be, and how they allow us to share our understanding of the experiences—and people—that made us who we are.