In Kubo and the Two Strings, Kubo and his mother live in a seaside cave near an unnamed village. Every day, the young boy goes to the village to perform as a storyteller, playing his shamisen and enthralling the villagers with a new installment of his epic tale. And every evening, before sunset, Kubo returns to his home to care for his mentally fragile mother.
She has warned him that the Moon King—his grandfather—destroyed the great warrior Hanso—his father. He also stole one of Kubo’s eyes when he was just an infant. If Kubo is ever outside after sunset, the Moon King will be able to find and follow him, and perhaps take his other eye. So Kubo is cautious, until one evening during an Obon celebration when he sees other villagers ceremonially communicating with their beloved dead.
Attempting to speak to his father, Kubo stays out past sunset—and discovers that his mother’s stories about the Moon King were true. Two of his eerie, vengeful aunts arrive to wreak havoc on the village. Kubo is forced to flee for his life. Accompanied by a talking macaque and a beetle-like cursed samurai warrior, Kubo begins a quest to find a magical suit of armor that is the only protection against the Moon King.
Oregon-based Laika Studios has created a small, but impressive, body of stop-motion animated films. This is by far the best work they’ve created to date. Though the voice casting is superb and the animation is top-notch, the best part of Kubo and the Two Strings is its themes. This film is primarily about the power of transformation—specifically, the power of story to transform people. Throughout the story, nemeses become lovers, family members become enemies, humans become animals, monsters become mortals. In a particularly beautiful and touching sequence, death itself is portrayed as just another transformation.
Kubo and the Two Strings also has some surprisingly complex things to say about families: they can be loving and supportive, but they can also be judgmental and toxic. In the culminating battle of the film, our hero demonstrates one way love can overcome such toxicity.
Finally, Kubo is about the power of insight—the way one chooses to make sense of the beauty and tragedy of mortality. There is magic in this world, this movie insists, if you have the desire to see it.
As with most Laika films, Kubo and the Two Strings has scenes of intense peril that may be too much for young or sensitive children to handle. The movement of stop-motion animation is, by its nature, unsettling. It will certainly appeal to older children and teenagers, but may find its most enthusiastic audience among adult viewers. Personally, I consider it the best movie I’ve seen all year.
Release Date: August 19, 2016 (USA)
MPAA Rating: PG
Language: 1 (a reference or two to hell)
Violence: 2 (intense swordfighting against inhuman entities, battles against giant monsters, general peril, death)