In some ways, Kubo and the Two Strings seems to meditate on the process and processing of narrative cinema as much as it does the same for trauma. Or perhaps it uses one to get to the core of the other. Kubo, the latest from Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls) and the first directorial effort from Laika President/CEO Travis Knight, follows the titular character (ably voiced by Game of Thrones’ Art Parkinson) as he seeks to complete the quest that doomed his legendary warrior father Hanzo: to find three pieces of magical armor and vanquish the evil Moon King. Kubo has been beholden to and victimized by his family legacy, and the epic straits into which he is thrust give him an opportunity to bring something like closure to the cycle of familial violence. This cycle has ended his father’s life at the hands of his grandfather and aunts, rendered his mother virtually catatonic, and cost him one of his eyes (not to mention a healthy childhood). The stories that he tells of his father’s exploits, that he hears from his mother by firelight in the cave they call home, help him to approach emotional and financial stability as they form the basis for his shamisen-backed bard performances in town. And it is through these stories, that we follow from concept to polished (if not finished, since Kubo has a problem with ending stories) product, that the film supports a vision of engagement with art as a therapeutic, even necessary endeavor.
From title sequence to final scene, sheets of paper serve as a motif in Kubo that draws attention to the frisson between artifice and authenticity inherent to filmmaking. They slide and flicker past the screen, recalling the motion of film frames or animation flipbooks. They float in vertical equidistance as a sort of blank zoetrope to screen off Kubo’s staging area before his performances. They serve as avatars for the dead, in the form of both floating paper lanterns and animate origami Hanzos (the latter wringing lots of comedic value from small moments of muted slapstick). It is fitting that a stop-motion film endow origami, another particularly complex art specializing in the manipulation of physical material, with so much thematic weight. In this way, Kubo is something of a surrogate for the filmmaker. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he provided some totemic bolstering for the animators during their tedious, ambitious endeavor. These sheets of paper empower Kubo, but they also draw attention to the fragility of his situation. There’s an absurdity to the layers of artifice, with a paper boy making paper creatures, which reflects Kubo’s tenuous navigation between the spirit world and ours. Paper is malleable and easily destroyed, qualities that he must avoid if he is to make it through his story.
Lucky for him, he has Monkey (Charlize Theron), a Japanese macaque magically brought to life from a figurine, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), an absent-minded half-samurai/half-insect who knew Kubo’s father but can’t quite remember much else, to aid him on his quest. With the introduction of these characters, the film also dips a bit into derivative territory (think Lion King, as I’m sure the creators were). It’s hard not to do, with such a time-worn construct as the quest narrative. While Monkey and Beetle relieve some tension and restore some hope, it can also get a little tiring to add more animal sidekicks to the Imaginary Friend Repertory Theater. However, these characters do flip the Disney model on its head a bit. Without giving too much away: there is more to them than meets the eye. And there are no softened edges to make these characters into easily marketable stuffed animal fare: Beetle is a little gross, with missing teeth and patches of rot in his armor (a hero who is perhaps Kurosawa by way of Kafka); Monkey is mean and a little scary, with a weathered face and piercing eyes (Laika is really doing great work with 3D printing). So these characterizations are still enthralling and at least make using a mold, if not breaking it, a bit more exciting. This ripples out through the film, as there are blow-for-blow moments of originally executed spectacle. A creaking, behemoth skeleton astonishes (especially when seen in a short making-of time-lapse during the credits). Simulacrum landscapes (a looming mountain here, an intricately detailed forest path there) provide sublime backdrops. Creepy villains (Rooney Mara as Kubo’s spectral, brutal twin aunts; Ralph Fiennes as the duplicitous and multi-formed Moon King) recall The Nightmare Before Christmas, and have become something of a hallmark for Laika.
Ultimately, Kubo uses its preoccupation with sight and filmmaking to make a powerful statement about art. The lesson learned is that there are some in this world who would rather be blind than feel pain, but there are healthier alternatives to understanding grief. Allowing for intimacy in the creation and consumption of art can be its own ideological stance against ignorance. In this way, Kubo provides an important reminder to never look away, even if it means feeling pain from time to time.