As soon as I saw advertisements for Kubo of the Two Strings, I knew it was either going to become my new favorite movie or it was going to become one of my most severe disappointments in film since Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (more on that in a later blog post). So when August finally rolled around, I was nearly dying with anticipation. I’d been looking forward to Kubo for half a year. But with that anticipation came anxiety: I was already knee-deep in a stack of recent media (films and video games alike) that had failed to deliver on the expectations they’d built through their teasers and trailers.
What if Kubo just ended up as another film to add to the stack?
The movie’s visuals held up to the trailer’s promise, even sans 3D. The company behind Kubo, Laika studios, has been rather hit-or-miss story-wise for me, but you can’t knock their attention to detail and devotion to stop-motion animation.
Although Kubo’s characters do suffer from a few early frames of uncanny valley expression shifts, the animation overall is so good it took me a good 10-15 minutes to remember that this movie was stop-motion. This especially shined with the focus on Kubo’s origami-based magic. Dozens to hundreds of pieces of origami paper danced across the screen, folding into birds or leaves or forming anything from usable boats to cute characters.
The origami figures were so detailed and lifelike. I’ve only dabbled in basic origami patterns, but even I recognized one pattern (a balloon/paper lantern) that Kubo folds together. Origami fans will also appreciate one of the movie’s self-jabs when it asserts that one of Kubo’s origami figures “Might not even be real origami,” as it’s suspected “scissors were involved.” (Traditional origami asserts that the figures must only be folded–no cutting allowed.)
I still have no idea if the origami was stop-motion animation or computer-generated graphics. Or just straight-up magic. It was gorgeous, it was eye-catching, it was new and unique: everything I could have asked for in a movie and everything they advertised it would be.
But how would the story and characters hold up?
Kubo is a storyteller, a trait we discover (through showing, not telling) that he learned from his mother. And he’s good at it. I couldn’t help but gape, gasp, and giggle along with Kubo’s fictional audience as he weaves his first tale to the local villagers.
As a storyteller myself, I found both the acting performances and the writing to be, well, honestly, inspirational. The characters felt round and endearing. The dialogue was realistic and never pandering. Adults could appreciate so many of the finer details, but these details wouldn’t leave kids lost or confused. The choice to forego a traditional narrator added to this decision not to talk down to the audience, and it was the right choice for this movie. The lack of a constant narrator voiceover kept the audience’s focus on Kubo, making it easy to relate to and root for him.
That said, I have to admit that some of the writing choices lead me to recommend this movie to older children (ten or so) rather than little tykes. Part of this is due to the beginning of the movie. After Kubo’s gripping voiceover intro (the one the trailers feature so prominently), the first 3-5 opening minutes of the movie are, in fact, completely silent. I adored this as an adult and writer (the creators conveyed more meaning through those silent minutes than I portrayed in 30 pages of my book). But I could see how younger children might see this beginning as boring, since technically not much is happening. But from then on, the pacing of the movie is friendly to all ages, with plenty of action and character development scenes to balance each other.
Kubo’s trailers showed no signs of the film’s theme, so I was surprised while watching to realize it is a film about accepting loss. This is another reason why the movie best targets older kiddos, as the youngest ones may not be able to understand this kind of theme.
Although I appreciate the theme and think it’s a very good message to share with kids who have experienced loss, the theme also directly or indirectly caused some of my biggest complaints about this movie, both of which reared their heads at the ending.
Selfishly, I wanted to spend more time with Kubo’s parents. They were clever and lovable characters. Although I think they had adequate screen time, I wanted to enjoy them even longer.
It didn’t help that the movie seems to imply that Kubo’s parents may survive or that there’s a way to save them. For instance, in one scene the mother implores the father to take care of Kubo once she dies. I completely thought this scene was foreshadowing or at least a misdirect: that she would die but the father would live, or vice versa. In a later scene, when Kubo tries to speak to his parents’ (now deceased) spirits, he begins to choke up as he admits he isn’t satisfied with this ending. He’s desperate to know if there’s any way to bring them back so he can have the family he’s always wanted.
Although I appreciated the message that Kubo was now strong enough to take care of himself, the movie ends on a note that makes Kubo seem very alone. True, the parents’ response to Kubo’s plea is to appear beside him as peaceful apparitions. This gives a calming “We will always be with you to guide you” feeling, but the movie does nothing to show they will be with Kubo through his everyday life or to help him make decisions. They only stand passively at his side at the edge of the graveyard. Since we don’t see any signs of their colorful personalities and as this is the only place and position we see them, I felt this contradicted the message that they’d always be with him. These weren’t the parents we and Kubo got to know and love; these were shallow, listless, lifeless shadows. That means that really, his parents wouldn’t really “always be with him” at all!
Another issue I had with the ending was that the redemption of Kubo’s grandfather felt rushed. After Kubo helps his grandfather become human, there’s an awkward exchange as the villagers try to help Kubo’s grandfather “recover” his memories. How do they accomplish this? By outright lying to him! (“You’re a great person!” “You give regular alms to the poor!” “You give gifts to the children every day!”) As these “memories” start to get more and more self-serving, I couldn’t shake the impression that the villagers were really just taking advantage of him.
The whole scene unfortunately left a poor taste in my mouth. What were the creators trying to say? That if someone just turned over a new leaf, best to lie to them in order to make sure they don’t become a monster again?
Instead, we get an uncomfortable string of lies that are supposed to be poignant. The grandfather seems overwhelmed and not sure what to do with all these memories that he obviously doesn’t remember, but he seems more than happy to believe in his love for his grandson. And here’s the final sin of this whole scene: this is the last we see of Kubo’s grandfather! It’s such an abrupt way to end Kubo’s grandfather’s arc, to the point where it left me wondering if his transformation has really done much at all.
In addition, this seems a very unfair ending to Kubo. After we’ve seen him admit that he’s unsatisfied with this ending, we can’t help but feel the same way. Kubo outright states that he wants a family he’s never had and only briefly got to experience. But the movie ends without him having his parents’ spirits walking through life with him and even without seeing him and his grandfather taking care of each other. Kubo ends without getting the family he wants and, quite frankly, deserves!
I would have loved to see an alternate ending in which, rather than the villagers lying to Kubo’s grandfather, Kubo tells his grandfather the truth through one of his origami stories. When his story is complete, he offers his grandfather his hand, offering to instead make new memories together. His grandfather takes his hand, and then the movie cuts to show Kubo going through a new morning ritual–this one with his grandfather actively participating. They go down to the village together, and while Kubo and his grandfather interact with the villagers, we also see Kubo’s parents’ spirits tagging along behind him. They playfully pick on each other as they did throughout the film and watch their son with pride.
This would have made an excellent bookend to the beginning of the film and been a great way to wrap up both the grandfather’s redemption, Kubo’s new family dynamic, and Kubo’s more active involvement in the village (signifying his growth and self-strength).
Ordinarily, a bad ending kills whatever enjoyment I’d had with a movie. However, I can honestly say that even with these issues, I still found Kubo’s ending satisfying. Even though it was far more tragic than I expected, it didn’t affect my impression of the movie as a whole. Kubo was every bit the masterpiece I was hoping it would be when I first saw its trailers. It delivered on the stunning visuals, creative concept, and likeable characters it promised. In fact, the writing vastly exceeded my expectations.
The movie’s pacing was well-balanced. The action scenes were suspenseful and gorgeous to watch. The character development scenes were well-placed and well-timed, a particular treat. In fact, I would argue that the characters and dialogue were the movie’s strongest points. Kubo’s parents are arguably the two most entertaining parts of the film. Their banter is snappy, completely in-character, moves the plot forward, and it’s laugh-out-loud funny to boot. It’s these memorable characters that make this movie so unforgettable.
Walking into the theater to see Kubo was both thrilling… and terrifying. But by the time I found myself watching the end-credits, I couldn’t help but feel full. Kubo truly is a work of art, and I can easily see it becoming a classic animated feature. The visuals are stunning, the storytelling is some of the best I’ve seen in years, and the characters and dialogue are fantastic. Kubo of the Two Strings is definitely worthy of my five-star rating: a must-see movie if you like the snappy, funny dialogue of Avengers; if you’re a lover of mythology or Japanese culture; or if you just plain love great storytelling.