‘If you must blink, do it now.’ These words are spoken at the start of Kubo and the Two Strings by our protagonist and set the tone for the rest of the film, which talks to its young audience in a straight forward and non-patronising way throughout. ‘Pay careful attention to everything you see no matter how unusual it may seem,’ it begs active viewing, to watch it intently, to notice all the little details of the world and piece them together. ‘If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.’ It is a story about stories, and it drills home the simple idea that a story is nothing without people to hear it. A moral that lends the film an air of sadness due to its current box office shortcomings, having the lowest opening of any of Laika’s previous films (Coraline, Paranorman, The Boxtrolls)
From the very first scene this movie marvels in its visuals and doesn’t stop until after the closing credits. The opening scene fills the screen with wild walls of water, harking back to Hokusai’s Great Wave, which influences every aspect of the film’s design. The world of the film makes Feudal Japan a playground, mixing the mythological with the traditional, placing secular magic side by side with notes strung from a three stringed shamisen that propel origami stage plays.
Kubo is the type of film that transports you to a completely new world, one that is never overly explained but is always dense and detailed in the background. Scenes that take place in ‘the far lands’ are filled with elegant background details that are left to the viewer to interpret, ‘pay careful attention to everything you see, no matter how unusual it may seem’. The history of the world is only spoken about, stories are told of the great Samurai Hanzo but never shown through flashbacks, they are left to the interpretation of the viewer and their surrogate Kubo. The stories of the world are how you make it and you really get the impression that the actions of Kubo and friends are creating a story that will be told about in the same way that stories of Hanzo are lauded around crowds.
But where the movie really excels is in its design. The stop motion is so smooth it can sometimes go unnoticed, but the craftsmanship can be spotted in any frame if you pay attention. The villains are incredibly villainous and nightmarish in a way that would stick in a kid’s mind. There are battle scenes within the film that are loaded with a sense of grandeur, that feel like Zelda boss battles.
I have a keen interest in chidren’s entertainment and the way that the essential morals need to be intertwined with a complete story. The limitations of the media lead to interesting choices and compromises. Kubo impresses me with the way it deals with danger and light horror, it puts you in mind of earlier generation kid’s movies like The Neverending Story or Labyrinth, which blend imagination and fantasy with an undercurrent of real danger. The brutal treatment of the characters has a real weight to it. There is a moment in Kubo that takes place on a ship in the middle of a storm where I was genuinely concerned for Kubo, Monkey and Beetle’s lives for separate reasons, and this is a feeling I didn’t have while watching any Pixar movie (with the exception of Toy Story 3). The film builds a sense of greatness, dread and stakes while still maintaining its small scale charm, it has few characters so it fleshes them out nicely and keeps the story feeling self-contained and familiar along with a grand overarching plot.
Go see this movie, give it your money, let studios know that this is the type of entertainment that is needed for kids. Real danger, high stakes, iconic design that will last that is not just loaded down with pop culture references and cutesy talking animals.
The film transported me as a grown up and should last for years in the mind of any children who see it. Scare your children, teach them a lesson.