If we don’t know how our story begins, how can we possibly know how it ends? What sort of destiny are we sent towards, when we don’t know our own origins? With no beginning and no end, all we’re left with is a whole lot of wandering middle; beautiful, and adventurous…but middle nonetheless.
So we learn that the quest to know our beginnings is likewise a quest to understand our ultimate end.
The titular character in KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a storyteller. Every day he goes into the village to the market, begins to play his shamisen, and weaves his tales of adventure while his origami creations come to life. His heroes delight the gathered crowd, his monsters terrify them, the gatherings storms fill everyone with great worry. However every time it seems as though Kubo should be reaching the grande finale, he bails – counting his coins and going home.
Kubo, it seems, doesn’t know his own story…at least, not how it ends.
When Kubo goes home at nights, he tends to his mother (Charlize Theron), who has fallen nearly catatonic after ferrying Kubo to safety many years ago. Kubo keeps her clean, keeps her fed, and waits patiently for any glimmer of her old self that might eventually arrive. When she does, she tells him how much she loves him, how talented he is, and how much danger they still face.
His aunts (Rooney Mara) search for Kubo and his mother every night. His grandfather has dispatched them with orders to bring Kubo back, so that his remaining eye can be plucked out. As long as Kubo gets home before dark, they are safe…but if he is out when the sun goes down, all bets are off.
The day finally comes when Kubo doesn’t make it back, and a confrontation between the family finally arrives. In a desperate move, Kubo’s mother ignites a magical charm woven into Kubo’s cloak, sending him away before setting off a seemingly nuclear reaction.
It’s then, in the deepest snowy wastelands, that Kubo must bring together three enchanted items in the hopes of staying safe. As it happens, he is joined by a talking monkey (Theron again) and a beetle who is also a samurai (Matthew McConaughey), which become valiant companions on his quest.
It’s up to Kubo to learn the truth within the tale…to write the next chapter, and finish his family’s story once and for all.
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is a modern story that feels like a classic story. Squint just so and it could be a folk song. Beyond being a hero’s journey, it’s also a magical tale that examines the roots of one family tree. There’s a beauty in its simple structure, and a warmth in the way it leaves its edges rough. Such details are usually honed and sharpened to great end by modern storytellers, so seeing them appear as though they remain rustically unvarnished is a trust that what is new can seem like it is old.
What was it Llewyn Davis said? “If it never gets old and it was never new, then it’s a folk song”
Kubo wishes to right a deep wrong…to put together the pieces of his fractured family…to brave the great peril that waits for him in the dark.
What allows all of this to come to life with such vibrance is the tactile animation that Laika employs. Make no mistake – they are using the very latest tools and toys. However, they are using them to capture and render some of the oldest materials animators have available. This marriage of the old and the new gloriously echoes the new story with an old feel. It seems like we are watching one of Kurosawa’s dreams, or perhaps an experiment from Ghibli. However, what we are in fact watching is modern – an animated marvel all its own.
That it feels so classic is a testament to its place in the modern film landscape. Week in and week out, films continue to arrive hoping to manufacture nostalgia. When one comes along that genuinely feels nostalgic, it should earn a special place in our hearts.
At the core of KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is the art of storytelling; an art I fear we are at risk of losing. No matter what your individual background is, storytelling is in your lineage. It was once used to make sense of the great mysteries of the universe, and played a great part in preserving our history. It was one of the very first forms of nightly entertainment, with high emphasis not only on the what, but also on the how. Even in modern times, one of the first ways we are amused as children is being told stories before we go to sleep, with our own family members standing in as our very own Shakespeare…our very own Grimm…our very own Spielberg.
We have a hard enough time holding conversations in the age we live in; what hope do we have of telling each other full stories.
Sure, sometimes these tales are strictly for our own amusement, but every now and then – as Kubo discovers – they also allow us to find our place in the world. They allow us to bring the pieces together and understand how we fit into the puzzle. But more importantly, stories have chapters, stories have volumes, and stories end. If we lose that, just how lost will we eventually become?
It’s only by comprehending the structure and nature of a story that we can realize when a story needs to end, and likewise, when an entirely new story should begin to be told. What’s more, it’s how we find ourselves in the stories we tell.