Main cast: Art Parkinson (Kubo), Charlize Theron (Mother/Monkey), Matthew McConaughey (Beetle), Ralph Fiennes (The Moon King), and Rooney Mara (The Sisters)
Director: Travis Knight
Once upon a time, a daughter of the Moon King fell in love with Hanzo, a great samurai. Together, they had a son called Kubo. Alas, the wrath of the Moon King is far reaching, and Hanzo and his army sacrificed themselves to stall the Moon King and his other daughters while Kubo’s mother fled with him. At that time, the Moon King had already tore Kubo’s left eye from the baby. Since then, Kubo and his mother lived in a cave on top of a hill-like structure overlooking a village by the beach.
When Kubo is old enough, he uses his mother’s magical shamisen – which could animate origami – to make a living by telling stories in the village. He also cares for his mother, who is slipping slowly into dementia. There is only one rule that he must follow, according to his mother: he must never stay out after night falls. Of course, our hero will break this rule soon enough. When he learns that the locals have a tradition of lighting lanterns to contact the departed, he decides to stay back to do the same, to contact his father. Alas, Hanzo never says anything back, and the frustrated Kubo waits until night has fallen and the moon comes out…
Sure enough, the Sisters – Kubo’s aunts – soon show up wishing to pluck out his remaining eye. His mother shows up to save him, and in the process casts a spell on the jacket he is wearing – his father’s – to grow wings and carry him off to safety. The boy comes to at a safe place, to be told by a monkey – which is actually the monkey charm his mother gave him, animated by his mother’s magic too – that his mother is gone and the monkey will now take care of him. They have to locate Hanzo’s legendary armor and a magic sword, if they hope to survive, especially now that the Moon King and his daughters have them on their sights. They soon bump into Beetle, an amnesiac samurai who was cursed into a beetle form (he can’t remember who cursed him, of course). Beetle claims that he remembers being Hanzo’s apprentice, so when he learns that Kubo is Hanzo’s son, he pledges his loyalty and service to that boy.
Maybe it’s because I’m Asian, but what charms many Western critics about Kubo and the Two Strings feels like watered-down tropes of folklores of Eastern Asia. The most jarring dissonance I encounter while watching this movie is the fact that the main characters are all speaking in clearly white manner – for the want of a better description – complete with distracting accents. Their conversations are littered with phrases and nuances that are more at home in an American sitcom. Is there any reason why this movie have George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, and several Asian Americans in the cast list only to relegate them to minor roles? I know this is done probably for commercial interests, although the people behind the movie insisted that cartoons should be “color blind”, snort. But in this particular instance, it is as jarring as, say, having the voices of the Simpsons being done by Indian folks with noticeable accents. If you set a movie in a Japanese setting, for heaven’s sake, at least have the main characters not sound or act like they are transplanted from a different culture altogether.
And the story, well, it’s a disappointment. The first half is rocky because the script has Kubo alternate between a petulant brat or prankster for laughs… right after Kubo watched his mother collide with her sisters in a terrifying clash and he was told that his mother died in that fight. The theme of this movie is family and bonds, but that is a hard sell when the main character does not seem affected by the fact that he is now an orphan on the run for his life. You can argue that Kubo is a young boy, but this young boy never acts like his age, so I don’t know what really gives here. Poor script writing, I’d wager. Also, Kubo gets amazing powers as the movie progresses, not because he studies or trains, but just because. Need a way out of danger? Woosh, Kubo conveniently and suddenly knows a special trick he can do with his shamisen!
At the end of the day, this is a story of a kid who can take down a villain who destroyed the most powerful samurai in the land and the samurai’s army, just because Kubo knows things at the right moment. Think about that.
Still, this movie is gorgeously animated, and some scenes are so exquisite to look at that doing so almost hurts the heart. It’s a shame that the studio behind this, LAIKA, clearly spent more time doing stop motion magic than to care about the story in ways that count. Kubo and the Two Strings is too obviously a movie made by white people, for white people who find Japanese culture and folklore an exotic fetish. So long as things don’t get “too Japanese”, that is.