With a dark tone, terrifying moments, and plot twists that, at times, border on cruel, Kubo and the Two Strings is hardly a kids’ movie. But that being said, it speaks to themes that most animated films will never dare touch, and as such, it merits the attention of older audiences.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a fantasy film set in ancient Japan, and takes its mythological influences from that same culture. Kubo is a boy who lives up in the mountains, but comes down every day to mix with the village, where he is something of a local celebrity, due to his magical storytelling abilities, both literally and figuratively. But alas, he can never seem to finish a story.
Back home in the mountains, he takes care of his mother, who tells stories even grander than Kubo’s, including those about his father Honzo, a great and powerful samurai, who died defending Kubo and his mother from his mother’s evil relatives.
And you thought you had problems.
Aside from being isolated and having a strict sunset curfew, Kubo has other problems. His mother is sick – not physically, but mentally. At his father’s grave, he says “she’s growing farther from reality every day.” In fact, after the opening monologue, the film’s first scene features a completely silent mother with a fixated sad face as he goes off to the village. It’s a chilling and powerful scene, and it’s not until Kubo gets back from the village that evening that we see she is not, in fact, mute.
This is what makes the turn from the First Act to the Second even more powerful. Even though we as viewers already know from the trailers and the genre that his mother actually knows what she’s talking about, the narrative unfolds with such a heavy focus on Kubo and how hard he’s trying to take care of his mother that it’s hard not to feel genuine surprise when he learns his mother isn’t actually crazy. When his evil aunties invade and he’s separated from his mother (by a powerful display of magic, by the way), he’s stuck with a suddenly sentient monkey, and later a beetle samurai, with a long quest ahead of him.
In many ways, this plot is a standard, by-the-book “Adventure of the Hero,” complete with a step-by-step quest. But there are two things that make this story stand out, just from an aesthetic perspective. The first is the exploration of Japanese mythology and culture which, while diverting from Christianity in a few admittedly important arenas (ancestor worship, for example), gives the film a fresh flavor and a more exotic feel. The second is an expression of the first – this is all tied together in a beautifully animated film that takes inspiration from the origami of Kubo’s storytelling format and interprets the entire world in origami-type shapes and textures. That combined with a gorgeous Asian-influenced soundtrack makes the film a beautiful, mesmerizing experience, regardless of where the story goes.
But the story does go places. In seeing his father as the one who is giving him guidance (not unlike the way we look to our Heavenly Father for guidance and providence), and remembering the advice and concern of his mother, Kubo learns that he was wrong to read to his mother’s eccentricities as illness. In fact, at one point in the film, he says directly “I should have listened to my parents.” This does two things that are very positive. It affirms what scripture tells us, that we should honor our parents (Deut. 5:16, Eph. 6:2), and it challenges us when we attempt to place a mitigated value on those who are not like us. This isn’t the same as saying that mental illness doesn’t exist. Instead, it’s prompting us to take another look. Instead of dismissing them, we may find that they have something to teach us.
Those are all elements that speak very highly to the film’s credit. But I also want to make note of a blunder that the film makes, one that while not detrimental, is a serious misstep. In the film’s conclusion, Kubo is portrayed dealing with one of his evil family members in a way that is neither healthy nor realistic. It’s not unhealthy in the typical vengeance narrative way. Rather, it presents an unrealistic picture of how someone could and even should actually respond to a family member that has hurt them in deep, tragic ways. This could pose a concern for those who have been hurt by their family members, sending the message that perhaps they aren’t being compassionate or forgiving enough, when in fact there is a place for forgiving another person without pretending that there is no reason to distrust that person.
That’s about all I can say without giving away significant plot details. But suffice it to say that when my son is old enough to watch this film and we watch it together, I will want to express disagreement with how the ending is handled, even if I am also excited to show him the beauty of another culture, and a story that embraces true heroism while bolstering a respect and embracing of family values.
Ultimately, Kubo and the Two Strings succeeds at what it’s trying to do in showing us a beautiful interpretation of another culture while taking us on an emotional whirlwind of an adventure, full of sad, funny, thrilling, touching, frightening, and uplifting moments. It is an intense and scary film for the animated sphere, and not what I’d recommend for family viewings with younger children. In fact, even as an adult, if you have an aversion to sad films, think twice before seeing this one. It’s that emotional intensity that makes the film hard to watch at times, but that same emotional intensity makes it something of a gem in the world of animated film.