It goes without saying, of course, that the material works just as well for adults as it does children. Part of that can be attributed to the dual accessibility of its little protagonist, a boy with the spirit and wonder of a young soul and the tempered intrigue of more aged sorts. Where do those traits come from, exactly? The opening scenes suggest a trauma passed down through stories of horror and grief; his mother, fleeing on the open seas with his infant figure strapped to her back, appears disoriented and solemn. In her attempt to escape whatever horror pursues her, the waves destroy her mode of transport, and both are whisked into the waves before washing ashore. But this is no ordinary boy, the narration informs us: he is a prize sought after by a cruel grandfather, who took away one of his eyes and yearns to, apparently, steal the second. Those realities are reflected in their routines as Kubo graduates to being an older child, watching over his withdrawn mother at night while wandering into the nearby village during the day to keep company with the natives.
He is valued, more or less, because he is a storyteller at heart. And not just any young bard, mind you: with a banjo at this side and elaborate origami figures on the sand, his descriptive narration literally causes his paper figures to come alive, where they act out his words while the music of the instrument works as a three-note soundtrack. Though the movie doesn’t initially offer reasoning, it is clear that both he and his mother possess some gift of magic; the banjo is merely the wand that brings it to reality, and onlookers in the village square are as enthralled by the stories as they are intrigued by their ambitious production. The problem for them – and for Kubo – is that the primary story never includes an ending, but the screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler allows us to read between the lines: it’s because his account of a warrior pursuing the “Moon King” is in fact a story he is unknowingly living, and the climax has yet to be written into existence.
Rules established by his caring but despondent mother act as devices against the evil that seems to be stalking them, and though the mystery itself is purposely vague, the rules are firm: neither is allowed to be outdoors at night, otherwise they once again become targets for those still in pursuit of their whereabouts. That reality, inevitably, comes to fruition early on when he lingers too long outdoors while attempting to communicate with the spirit of his deceased father; once the sun goes down, the moon’s energy seems to fill the dark forest with a menacing presence, and a pair of ghostly female apparitions (sisters claiming to be aunts) materialize. There are chases through dangerous fog, warnings against townsfolk to flee the strange menace, and critical confrontations that take the story into territory that is inevitably heartbreaking. But if there’s a distinctive quality in that conviction, it’s that the visual realization thinks beyond our usual definition of animated frames. Stop-motion is a notoriously long and difficult beast to tame, but Knight and his technicians grapple with the concept as a way of giving distinctive edge to the material, encouraging us to continue with the journey just as much for the images as the twists.
Some of the best moments of the film involve the locations Kubo is taken into while in the company of Monkey (Charlize Theron), his spirit guardian, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a warrior-like sidekick with memory loss. Their search for Kubo’s father’s armor – apparently the only thing that will ward off the dangerous advances of his fiendish relatives – takes them into astonishing locales like a cave occupied by a giant skeleton demon, and a lake where a garden of blinking eyeballs threatens to destroy one’s soul. But they are novel in the way that an image of a white stag in “Princess Mononoke” was so striking: not because they stand out, but because they do so while being in the company of an endless supply of moments that defy the mere visual conventions. Here is a movie where the hero not only searches for an unbreakable sword in the skull of a living skeleton, but also invents a ship out of paper, a flock of origami birds that actually fly, and even tasks himself with doing battle against a lunar being that turns into a translucent dragon.
I watched the ambitious “Kubo and the Two Strings” not like the adult that I had reluctantly become, but as the eager kid leaning forward in my seat who was starved for new sensations. There is scarcely a moment that isn’t utilized to inspire wonder, not one scene that lacks enchanting scope. The only drawback to it all, perhaps, is that the adventure is over as quickly as it began; at 101 minutes, young Kubo’s experience with his distraught mother, vengeful aunts and trusted friends moves like flashes on a highlight reel, and after it’s over we can hardly fathom that it all transpired so fast. But I don’t know if I would call that a flaw in the writing or just a nagging personal preference. Certainly the utilization of the stop-motion technique prevents these creative walls from being any larger. Certainly the director, a first-time filmmaker, knew the dangers (not to mention the financial restrictions) of lingering too long in the embrace of this sort of yarn. And certainly the characters were far too scared to be eager for enduring this path longer than necessary, especially after so much pain had roused their destinies. The thing about cartoons is that sometimes they are too self-aware to honor the boundaries of their stories. Few, like this movie, have the sense to find comfort in shorter, more resonating passages.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Animated/Adventure (Japan/US); 2016; Rated PG; Running Time: 101 Minutes
Art Parkinson: Kubo
Charlize Theron: Monkey
Matthew McConaughey: Beetle
Brenda Vaccaro: Kameyo
Ralph Fiennes: Moon King
George Takei: Hosato
Rooney Mara: The Sisters
Produced by Travis Knight and Arianne Sutner; Directed by Travis Knight; Written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler; based on the story by Marc Haimes and Shannon Tindle