Kubo and the Two Strings movie review: quest for family

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Kubo and the Two Strings green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Magic, music, and monsters come together to create a marvelous fairy tale that’s scary, sweet, and full of tough emotions that kids’ movies often avoid.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Magic, music, and monsters come together to create a marvelous new fairy tale in stop-motion house Laika’s stunning Kubo and the Two Strings. In a fantasy ancient Japan, 11-year-old Kubo (the voice of Art Parkinson: San Andreas) earns a few coins to care for his ailing mother by telling epic tales in the village square: with the strum of his lute, he can send origami papers flying into the air and folding themselves to animate and illustrate his stories. But even more magic lurks inside Kubo, which his grandfather, the evil Moon King (the voice of Ralph Fiennes: Hail, Caesar!), wants to snatch from him; the Moon King has already taken one of Kubo’s eyes, when Kubo was a baby, which sent his mother fleeing into hiding with infant Kubo. But now the Moon King is nearly upon them, and intends to make Kubo reign alongside him in vicious terror. So Kubo embarks upon a journey, with the help of an enchanted monkey (the voice of Charlize Theron: The Huntsman: Winter’s War) and a strange beetle-man warrior (the voice of Mathew McConaughey: Free State of Jones), to find the hidden objects of power that will help him defeat the Moon King.

For Kubo — and for many of us — family is a story and a quest…

Scary and funny, sweet and bitter in equal measurestweet, Kubo is mighty and moving, its gorgeous animation style offering up imagery that is by turns serene — candle lanterns floating down a nighttime river are lovely — and chilling: the menacing witches The Sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara: Carol) are nightmare fodder even for grounded grownups. Though not based on any preexisting tale, Kubo — the directorial debut of Laika vet Travis Knight (a producer and animator on The Boxtrolls and ParaNorman), with a script by Chris Butler (ParaNorman) and new screenwriters Shannon Tindle and Marc Haimes — sings with a delightful fanciful vision of Japan, visually and culturally, something so rare in Western storytelling: Kubo doesn’t look or feel quite like any movie we’ve seen before. It also encompasses some tough emotional realities that movies intended for children often avoid: past and ongoing traumas that Kubo endures; the difficulties of caring for an unwell parent, especially for a child; and even the fact that “family” doesn’t always mean “unconditional love.” For Kubo — and for many of us — family is not a static state but an ongoing story and a quest that has not ended even when his adventure has.

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Jonathan Roth
Jonathan Roth
Mon, Sep 12, 2016 2:37pm

This was such an amazing movie, and such a different plot arc than I’m used to seeing in an animated film.

Tue, Sep 13, 2016 11:59am

The amount of time and talent and attention to detail that went into this movie is humbling. I didn’t even realize it was stop motion until the scene of the skeleton during the credits. Last week, I watched Don’t Breathe, which contained a couple lines that annoyed me so much I had to watch Kubo a second time to wash the bad taste out of my brain. Kubo not only has solid writing, the voice acting is outstanding, especially from Mara. The character design of the sisters is just badass all around – they’re like the twin daughters of Vampire Hunter D and Larva from Vampire Princess Miyu.

Sadly, almost none of my friends even knew this movie existed, which might explain its poor box office performance. It deserves to be at least as big as Coraline. Hopefully, this won’t sink future Laika stop motion projects – they are by far the most inspiring product Nike has ever made. The “making of” movie below makes me think that one day soon, we’ll be able to 3-D print exact recyclable replicas of characters in any movie (for a fee of course). I’d give my left eye for a stop motion model of one of the sisters.


reply to  amanohyo
Tue, Sep 13, 2016 12:47pm

Strange – it’s been trailered in all the usual places. How do people who aren’t me find out about upcoming films these days?

reply to  amanohyo
Tue, Sep 13, 2016 1:17pm

It was wonderful to find this movie at the end of a summer when almost every movie was disappointing. But the casting drove me nuts. A movie based on Japanese culture featured lead actors who were very, very white. (See also: Zootopia, a film about diversity.)

This article talks about some of the cultural issues and tells you where to find mediocre Kubo toys:


MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Danielm80
Tue, Sep 13, 2016 10:36pm

But the casting drove me nuts.

This bothers me a little bit too. But then — as someone online who I cannot remember mentioned — if this were a Japanese film, the English-language dubbing would almost certainly have been done by mostly white actors (as is true, say, for all the Ghibli films).

Tue, Sep 13, 2016 1:50pm

I agree that the movie is visually astonishing and the storytelling is mostly fresh, and it’s well worth watching. I did have a problem with the ending. I felt that what happened to the Moon King was a bit of a storytelling cop-out. So he has his memories — and therefore his identity — taken away, and Kubo and the villagers offer him new stories about himself as a kind and compassionate man. It seems great, but what does it mean when the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, are actually lies? That’s not forgiveness or closure; that’s papering over one’s crimes. It would have been more powerful and morally significant if the Moon King had been stripped of his powers but still understood who he was and what he’s done, and the villagers forgave and accepted him anyway.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Tue, Sep 13, 2016 10:37pm

That’s a good point. But there’s also something to be said for the idea that we are our memories, and without them, we become a different person.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Wed, Sep 14, 2016 12:26am

True, but that’s kind of why I had a problem with it. (spoiler) Kubo erases the Moon King’s memories, and in effect destroys his person; the villagers basically accept a completely different person who has nothing to do with the story. So the Moon King doesn’t get to wrestle with his past deeds, and Kubo doesn’t get to wrestle with trying to forgive him, because the Moon King no longer exists. The movie wants the hero to find a way NOT to kill the villain, but in effect that’s what he does. It feels like too easy an ending for a film as clearly ambitious and different as this one.

Compare this with, say, how Captain America: Civil War treats Bucky Barnes. Cap tries to absolve Bucky of his sins: “You were brainwashed when you did those things.” Bucky replies: “Yeah, but I still did them.” The film holds him — and he holds himself — accountable for his crimes; saying “I’m different now” is no excuse. This gives Cap’s decision to forgive him more moral weight.

Granted, Kubo is a kids’ film, but given the way it deftly handled other weighty themes, it might have found a better way to handle this one. (Avatar: the Last Airbender did, in many instances.)

Anyway, I’ve gone on about this, just ’cause I’m thinking about it, but it really only slightly detracts from a very beautifully-made film.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Wed, Sep 14, 2016 3:57pm

Perhaps there’s room for a sequel. :-)

reply to  Bluejay
Thu, Nov 24, 2016 7:32am

Thanks for this comment. I finally got to see Kubo, and I enjoyed it, but the issue you raised is the biggest reason that I didn’t think it quite as spectacular as MaryAnn did.

Lenina Crowne
reply to  Bluejay
Wed, Sep 14, 2016 12:23am

I also thought it was kinda creepy. It was reminiscent to me of like a bunch of people taking advantage of a senile old man. I think it would have been better if they said “well, frankly, you changed recently and we don’t really know you as a person all that well” and then he decided to take this opportunity to be kind.