Kubo and the Two Strings is a humbling technical achievement and a beautifully crafted animated film, but its plot sometimes stumbles into narrative incoherence in its attempt to expound on its philosophical themes.
Kubo is the latest film from the stop-motion animation studio Laika, makers of such gems as Coraline and The Boxtrolls. Laika is probably the premier stop-motion animation studio currently in business, owing in no small part to their willingness to push the boundaries of what can be achieved with stop motion from film to film.
Kubo is, in that respect, their coup de grace. It is beautiful, fluid, and alive in a way that seems all the more real for the fact that they’re essentially hand-manipulated puppets. A few things, such as water and weather effects, are added in CGI post-production, but it’s actually quite staggering to watch the film and then watch making-of documentaries where they reveal just how much of the movie owed to the tireless work of animators who painstakingly animated the characters down to the individual strands of their hair, frame after frame.
Even painstaking effort wouldn’t amount to much, though, if the film had turned out creatively uninspired. Kubo, however, doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Its Japanese aesthetic and brilliantly realised landscapes provide a stunning background for the story to play out. In particular, the opening scene, where Kubo’s mother rides out a storm in a boat in a quest to reach dry land, is one of the most visually and emotionally arresting cold opens I’ve ever seen in an animated film.
The thing about Kubo that prevents it from being a perfect film, however, is the matter of its overarching story playing second fiddle to the film’s preoccupation with its themes.
The story seems simple at first blush: Kubo sets out with his allies, a monkey and a beetle-like samurai, in a by-the-numbers heroic journey to collect pieces of armour and weapons needed to best a godlike evil.
But as the film wears on, the battle turns into something of a treatise on themes of humanity, storytelling, and the value of ephemerality, which is, admittedly, very Japanese. The heroes fight against a heavenly foe whose perfection is bought at the expense of their humanity. They seek an eternity of bliss, and that goes against the notion that great stories must have a beginning and an end, must incorporate joys and sorrows in equal measure.
These kinds of conflicts don’t really have that much purchase in the real world, and it isn’t quite clear where the film is trying to go with it. Good stories need an end, to be human is to be imperfect, lost loved ones persist forever in our memory – the narrative is a bit clumsy in trying to get its messages across in a way that makes the story seem more like a constructed fable – like a rendition of an actual story through the eyes of a storyteller with an agenda – as opposed to a real, organic story.
That’s not to say that such fable-like plots have no place in literature, but I think that Kubo that on balance, it’s heavy on its thematic preoccupations and light on its characters. Which is a shame, because the chemistry between Kubo, Monkey and Beetle is one of the most charming parts of the film. Beetle, in particular, is a riot. But they receive short shrift just as it gets going (and, indeed, the scene plays out in the most tropey manner possible). From then on, the plot loses some coherence as it quickly ushers in the third act – the showdown between Kubo and his enemy, somewhat reduced into them fighting while shouting out their irreconcilable philosophical differences at each other.
We’re supposed to get it, to grok it by then, on a primal level, in order for us to root for Kubo. But the things that Kubo is fighting for, while compelling in theory, get muddled by the intricacies of the metaplot about how his heavenly grandfather wants to make him inhumanly perfect by taking away his eye, which is supposed to remove his memories so that he will turn away from the imperfections of the world and ascend to a higher plane – and you get the picture. Too many macguffins, too many odd plot devices, all in service of an abstracted theme that needs exposition to really hammer them home to the viewer in a compelling way – exposition that the film doesn’t have time for, and would occur at the expense of character development.
But you know what? Despite the fact that the plot, in my mind, ended up a muddled by its abstract message, it would be unfair to fault the film’s creators for shaping this beautifully crafted film into a vessel for the messages they want to convey. It is their prerogative, and the message is a beautiful and important one, if slightly contrived to fit into the strictures of the plot and short running length (which in itself must have been an issue of expectations management and budget). Kubo is a work of painstaking craft, tremendous beauty, and great courage, and it deserves its place on the pantheon of animated greats.
I give this film: 4 out of 5 Swords Uncomfortable