Kubo and the Two Strings is a genuine masterpiece. The word “masterpiece” might be used carelessly and far too often these days when discussing contemporary movies. At the least, Kubo has fulfilled the conventional definition of “masterpiece” no matter how semantically satiated the word has become, if not entirely forging a new meaning altogether. It is truly a paragon film because it is precisely about the linguistic relationships necessary to make up stories, and the magical tradition of partaking in fiction.
In what could be considered the cleverest aspect of a very smart children’s movie, Kubo the character is the framing device of his own film. He narrates the story, cautioning and reminding the viewers to be ever mindful and careful not to blink, else they miss a second of the tale.
The conceit of the film is the conflict between vision and blindness and the struggle to see a story through to a satisfying resolution. Kubo’s quest is to retrieve a trio of physical totems of the past, doubling as a commentary on the three-act structure of nearly all movies. This mirrors the film’s real-world mission for tangible simulations through vivid stop-motion animation. For Kubo treats historic folklore as an enlightened hallucination that needs to be respected and revived. Because, in the end, a singular narrative of purpose is the communal search of all people.
Rhythm and Hues
From the Portland-based studio Laika, comes their fourth film about a child trying to fit in and understand their respective worlds. Set in feudal Japan, Kubo (Art Parkinson) and his mother are hiding from the Moon King (Ralph Feinnes), Kubo’s grandfather. Kubo and his mother live on the outskirts of a small village, and everyday he goes into town to tell stories as a way to make a living.
With the aid of his magical guitar, Kubo tells gripping narratives populated with monsters and heroes, namely of the mighty Hanzo. As he plays the guitar, paper swirls around and becomes origami and they act out the tale being told to the citizens.
But one fateful night, Kubo stays out longer then he should, and the forces of darkness come after him and his mother. A pair of twin assassins, The Sisters (Rooney Mara), Kubo’s mother’s sisters, descend from the spiritual plane in hot pursuit of Kubo, and it forces him to confront his past and learn the true nature of things.
Directed by Laika’s CEO, Travis Knight (the son of Nike co-founder Phil Knight) had worked for years in stop-motion animation before finally throwing his hat into the auteur ring. The work that Travis Knight and his animation crew have done is otherworldly. There has always been a slight jerkiness in stop-motion films; some studios, like Aardman, have used that uniqueness as their signature. Not that smoothness equals greatness, but the even-movement of the characters and cameras in Kubo is very life-like. One often forgets they’re watching an animated movie because of the talented control that the filmmakers have over their models.
Adding a historical context to Kubo and the Two Strings is that it draws heavily upon the great films from Japan, namely Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, both directed by Akira Kurosawa (who I consider to be the best director of all time). Much of the town that Kubo lives next to has a lot of the look of the town that Yojimbo visits and plays out in. The jaw-dropping set-pieces in Kubo have the sophistication of Seven Samurai’s epic battles, with an added flair of the supernatural that heavily exists in Japanese culture.
There are even characters in Kubo who resemble several archetypes of classic Japanese cinema. There’s Monkey (Chalize Theron), a totem brought to life by magic, who guides Kubo on his journey and helps prepare him for what lies ahead. Monkey plays the wise sage character who is harsh and brutal, yet has paternal instincts and a warmth to her. And then there’s Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a samurai warrior with amnesia who is exceedingly skilled with a bow and arrow. Beetle has the familiarities of the fool or bumbling moron, who adds a bit of charm and levity to the picture.
Knight and his production crew, along with a voice cast of immense talent, have made one of the most beautiful animated films of all time. Every shot is framed just right. The color palates by Director of Photography Frank Passingham are to die for. The editing is as spot-on as any live-action work. The music fills the empty space at the right time and elevates the scenes perfectly, just as it’s supposed to. There’s isn’t a wrong choice artistically or aesthetically and everyone involved should be commended.
The tradition of telling stories and handing them down is the oldest and most sacred of all human rituals. I actually frown at the idea of escapism, as it’s an unfair symbol. Our lives are stories, and everything we do is wrapped up in the construct of a narrative by and through language. As language evolves into new forms and new meanings and new modes of style, the one element that stays the same is viewer or reader response and the input of interpretation. A story doesn’t become a thing with boundaries and structure without someone to behold it and react to it.
It is in this multifaceted and complex formalism of fiction that Kubo excels. Whatever other films come out this year, or already have, Kubo has addressed the very function of each of them and the absolute, essential part of being told to others. It isn’t so much that a story has a fitting end in terms of the actual expectations, but that it gets to be a part of a community that interacts with it. Kubo doesn’t know how to finish the tale of Hanzo, and so it takes the the people to do so.
A language needs the entirety of the words and their meanings for every single word to exist, and vice versa. The ability to see the end is of vital necessity in Kubo. Monkey informs Kubo that the end of a life or a story isn’t a tragedy because it is really the beginning of a transformation; the nascence of a new or expanded language.
The Moon King’s ethos is antithetical of Kubo’s because he has a rigid approach to language, and has made up his mind about what definitions there should and shouldn’t be. He is blind to the possibility of enlightenment or of progressive expansion. His world looks down on humankind, cold and unaware that he’s caught in the linguistic web of metaphysics and therefore inane. The biggest irony is that the Moon King’s actions are what cause Kubo to experience the fullness of fiction and find the conclusion he needs to tell his story.
To overcome the darkness we have to remember the best of fiction and reinvent it, for it will lead us to insight and open up meaningful relationships with depth. Pay attention to all that you see and don’t look away no matter how unusual it may seem, or we will perish.
There aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to ascribe to Kubo and the Two Strings. As bold as it is in its artistic and embellished techniques, Kubo manages to be equally thought-provoking and surreal in the most visual of ways. It is a masterful fiction, and now the story is being passed along.
What did you think of Kubo and the Two Strings? What do you think about this year’s animated films?
Kubo and the Two Strings is now playing in the U.S. It opens in the U.K. on September 9th. For all international release dates, see here.
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