Minor spoilers in the review. Kubo lives in a cave with his ailing mother. They washed ashore while they were running from Kubo’s evil grandfather, who wants something from him. When his evil aunties, in league with his grandfather, attack him, he goes on a quest to retrieve the magical armor of his lost father and once and for all stop the menace that is his grandfather.
A beautiful animation and a beautiful story, but not altogether perfect. Kubo and the Two Strings is nevertheless one of the more heartfelt adventure stories of the year and deserves recognition. It is an animated feature by Laika Entertainment, who previously offered The Boxtrolls (2014), ParaNorman (2012) and Coraline (2009). All very unique and successful animations, and Laika now has a reputation to uphold.
The boy Kubo has an undefined sort of magic. He has power over origami, the Japanese folded paper art. Vaguely according to Kubo’s conscious and subconscious wishes, paper folds itself into the shapes of little men and animals for him, and his power extents to other paper-like substances, like leaves of a tree. Handily, he carries a stack of paper around in his backpack. Nobody seems weirded out that he has these powers, and his mother has them too. What looks really inspiring is that he channels his power through a magical Japanese guitar, a bit like a magic wand really. Musical instruments make for great magical catalyzers.
So, Kubo goes on a quest with two other creatures and they have stirring adventures. But we never really see or feel the limits of these magical powers or any cost at using them, and when they suddenly occur, they carry an unfortunate deus-ex-machina feeling. Whenever something bad happens, magic somehow solves it in one way or another and we are left scratching our heads, asking: “I didn’t know he could do that”. It always looks very beautiful, but it’s a superficial way of solving plotlines. Whenever Kubo and the Two Strings makes you stare in awe at the beautiful colors, there is little tension involved because that is solved by some magical yaddayadda.
This is why the central conflict of the story and the ultimate showdown with the big baddy left me rather cold. It all had to do with magical spirits and Kubo’s magical guitar. We see waves of colors that have something to do with magic and are, or represent, either emotions or familial ties or… something. But just like in Harry Potter when Harry and Voldemort are shooting magical beams at each other, the beams don’t really mean anything except just colorful beams of… power? Emotion? It’s not much more than fireworks.
Anyway, what the story is really about is family. Especially the nuclear unit of Kubo and his mother and father. And once the fireworks of magic dies down, the real strength and depth of the film is revealed afterwards and has to do with this emotional core. Family, love and recognition are the magic words. There is a conflict about Kubo being or not being accepted and cared for by his parents, who seem to have abandoned him. And a second conflict exists between his parents, who seem to have lost each other. It is love that eventually leads to the warm feeling of homecoming and recognition. That’s beautiful. And very powerfully portrayed here.
However, I got a sense that I was missing something, some significance or metaphor. I didn’t understand aspects of the bad guys. It is very early on revealed that the bad guy is his grandfather, but why did it had to be his grandfather? His motivations never really became clear, except that he had turned his life story away from love and recognition of familial ties, and it also had something to do with death and immortality but this stays very vague. It doesn’t seem to add any significance to the wrapping up the storyline of Kubo and his parents.
I’ll say it again: Kubo and the Two Strings is a beautiful film to look at. It did not fully resonate with me, because there was something vague about the story and the magic and the message that never really became clear to me. Still, I wholeheartedly recommend it.