Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

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Years ago, Kubo and his mother were driven from home by his grandfather and aunts.  His grandfather plucked Kubo's left eye, and if Kubo dwells in the moonlight they will return to pluck the other.  A moment of sadness brings the threats back to Kubo's life. Now he must journey with unusual companions to end the evil plaguing his family.  Travis Knight directs Kubo and the Two Strings, the screenplay was written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, and stars Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, and Matthew McConaughey.

One of my favorite pieces of criticism I've read has to do with the 2012 animated film ParaNorman.  While our own Jacob Anderson did a fine job with the Can't Stop the Movies review, I've returned to this piece by Derek Flood.  Flood gets to the heart of why Laika, the production company behind ParaNorman and Kubo and the Two Strings (Kubo moving forward), has been a revelation in animation.  Laika creates movies as concerned with the spiritual dimensions of their stories as they are the production values.  Instead of a specific dogma, Laika films speak to a deeply humanist need for stories to make sense of it all, and refuses to preach the same message twice.

This is why Kubo is both a welcome reassurance to the quality of Laika productions and a sort of response to the pacifism of ParaNorman.  While the conflict in ParaNorman resolved itself through nonviolence, Kubo (Art Parkinson) is not privileged enough to walk that path.  Sometimes you have to fight.  If an opportunity to break up the conflict through nonviolent means eventually presents itself, by all means pursue it.  But if you're facing an opponent that regards your body as little more than a tool to advance their own ideology, then you may have to fight.

Kubo and the Two Strings deals directly with death and loss, but softens the blow with sweeping images like this sea of spiritual lanterns being snuffed out.

The body as a site of conflict and trauma gives Kubo a resonance for children and adults alike.  When the camera in the opening scene settles on Kubo's mother, we don't need a storyteller to fill in the details of why she is struggling against the waves threatening her.  Our instinctive need for physical survival fills in those gaps, and when the cloth carrying Kubo unravels we see his left eye bandaged.  His mother, in her struggle to protect Kubo, bashes her face against rocks and now has her own left eye scar.  Without underlining the point, Kubo makes the case from the first scene on that to protect the next generation from harm we may need to endure violence.

But Kubo isn't all threat.  Before the real world threats catch up to Kubo and his mother we're treated to a wonderful world where magical abilities are common.  There's value in the Harry Potter approach of crafting a world bursting with magic, but I resonated with Kubo's subdued if no less fanciful use of magic.  Kubo shows magic in storytelling details, the way Kubo's origami springs to life when he plays his shamisen, treating us to the handcrafted delight of a fire-breathing chicken shooting eggs at an origami samurai.  The underside of this comes from the dark place of storytelling, the nightmares which plague Kubo and his mother, and the images beyond their control which affect the world as they sleep.

I love the way director Travis Knight lets concerns both ethereal and corporeal play into the literal magic of storytelling.  It's not just a psychological defense mechanism for Kubo and his mother.  Stories are how they survive.  They comfort one another, create protection, and even put food on the table.  The screenplay, written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, didn't have to call for flying bits of paper which, surely, were not easy to animate in the stop-motion style.  But Knight and crew soldiered forward with this story to show how bits of inspiration come floating in and out of view.  In a movie filled with spectacular action scenes it may seem odd that moving paper was my favorite visual, but that's where my heart went.

There's plenty of room for humor along with the weightier topics. The best is this tiny origami samurai acting as sign post.

On the subject of those action scenes - holy wow.  I can't think of the last time, if ever, stop-motion animation attempted fights with the scale of Kubo.  They work with a perfect in-universe logical consistency, the most impressive being the fight scene aboard a boat made of leaves.  As attacks between Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Karasu (Rooney Mara) miss their intended marks and cause collateral damage to the ship, bits of leaves explode into clouds and drift away into the water.  Just as impressive is Knight's decision to cut from the action to moments of quiet terror as Kubo confronts monstrous eyes floating in the water.

The "two strings" of the title aren't immediately clear, but when they're brought forth it's in a perfect blend of the physical, emotional, and spiritual pain Kubo endured.  Kubo's use of the "two strings" is as devastating as it is uplifting.  They embody our need to face the unknown with stories to make sense of our suffering, the unexpected ethereal effects of these stories, and the need for physical intimacy with loved ones to bring the connections home.

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Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Directed by Travis Knight.
Screenplay written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler.
Starring Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, and Matthew McConaughey.

Posted by Andrew

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