Kubo and the Two Strings
(PG) Voices of Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey
Ancient Japanese legends, high-end animation and a kid from Game of Thrones. Welcome to Kubo and the Two Strings, this year’s strangest and most daring mainstream cartoon aimed at the family crowd.
Critics around the world are falling over themselves to find words to describe the 3D beauty and tactile feel of Kubo. Combining the old-school art of stop-motion animation with computer-generated whizbangery, Kubo is a sensory spectacle. But as some talk up the delectable Kubo experience, what can be downplayed is just how weird, grim, complicated and potentially misleading this supernatural odyssey is.
Be warned: what Kubo presents about grief, the afterlife and honouring ancestors is the stuff that family car trips will be overloaded with, on your way home from the cinema. Far from a universe of God, Jesus, us, the earth and the heavenly realm as explained by the Bible, Kubo is more a fluid existence where good and bad battle to come out on top. The spiritual warfare on show seems to have no firm parameters, VIPs or end-game, unlike the spiritual warfare outlined in the New Testament (see Ephesians 6, for example). Kubo unfurls like a made-up story being told, yet one full of deep issues we all need to confront in reality.
Boasting some big names providing big vocal talent (notably, Oscar winners Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey are Kubo’s “animal” sidekicks), Kubo is set in an imagined landscape of mythic Japan. Our young hero Kubo (Game of Thrones‘ Art Parkinson) wears an eye patch, his mum seems to have PTSD, and they live in a cave because Kubo’s mystical grandfather wants to steal his other eye. And things get darker and freakier from there, as Kubo’s magical abilities of origami storytelling fail to help him see how his fate will unfold when he defies his mum’s warning to not stay out after dark.
What happens when Kubo inevitably breaks curfew is a classic hero’s quest, blended with ghostly enemies, Grimm fairytales and samurai action. The handling of all these elements is deft and evocative, even as the hunt for special armour — and family secrets — messes with your mind’s ability to comprehend the macabre myth playing out before the whole family.
Not that Kubo will be too tough for any child over the age of 8 or 10 (or 40) to stick with. Director Travis Knight and his handful of screenwriters do a splendid job of pitching the on-screen conversations, explanations and situations at a PG-rating level. No, the hard part is just getting your head around what is going on, as Kubo interacts with his monkey and beetle offsiders — across dimensions of time and reality — while they are enveloped by mysteries of death, honour and creepy control. You know, by a no-good Moon King and his floating white-faced daughters from the dark side.
Parents and care-givers who have struggled to work out when to talk to the kids about death and grief might want to steer clear. Kubo dives headlong into such troubling terrain, taking it so seriously that the film’s scary and odd moments can be muted by the constant fact that our little samurai is dealing with some big, big, big emotional stuff. Not shying away from the facts of mortality is an admirable undercurrent of Kubo, although there’s plenty of fantasy and speculation about the spiritual realm that requires more than playful acceptance.
Kubo promotes some movie version of Eastern mysticism that honours memories of ancestors and suggests the living can help steer the eternal fate of a relative’s spiritual state. A cool thing our eyepatched hero learns along the way is that what his closest relative’s left him — powerful memories — can help him through life, after their death. The stories of those before can influence and aid the stories of those left behind. There’s something poetic and practical in that.
What’s not so cool about Kubo‘s storytelling about this world and the next is where it might leave audience. The idea of nasty spirits hunting you down probably won’t be that appealing to anyone, but Kubo‘s convenient and approachable vision of the living interacting with the dead might cause some viewers to long for such a relationship. The urge for that is fair enough, but what’s the reality of our situation? And what’s the best way of sharing the truth of life and death with your nearest and darest? Kubo is a stunning prompt to brave the imposing arena of existence, but caution should be exercised about how far to run with the comfort and answers it entertainingly offers.
Ben McEachen is co-host of The Big Picture
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