Travis Knight's debut feature (and Laika Studios' fourth) Kubo and the Two Strings functions (as does most of the moviemaking outfit's projects) as welcome alternative to the Pixar/Disney school of animation--darker and not without horrors.
Easily my favorite is the 2009 Coraline, Henry Selick's wonderfully creepy adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novella, about the eponymous girl's struggle with an all-too-real situation: the family newly moved into a new house, her parents are too busy with work to pay her much attention. Exploring, she uncovers a door (a small hatch really) into another world, an exact copy of her own, with a near-exact facsimile of her mother offering a newer happier alternative life, on one condition: that big black buttons be sewn over her eyes.
The premise (and its macabre little kicker of a detail) reminds me of a comic strip where legendary children's author and artist Maurice Sendak talks to legendary comix author and artist Art Spiegelman about childhood: "Childhood," Sendak declares, "is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth!"
As if realizing what he said may have been too much, Sendak qualifies his outburst: "In reality childhood is deep and rich. It's vital, mysterious, and profound." Part of that profundity I believe consists of suffering and loss, terror and pain--something Pixar and Disney like to soft-pedal or apply in brief easy-to-digest doses when they sell their digitally composed wares to children all over the world.
Laika in this case represented by Knight and his crew seem aware of Sendak's words. Kubo's premise like Coraline's involves the eye: Kubo (Art Parkinson) lost his left orb when he was a child, and he and his mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron) have been hiding ever since. They will be found out, of course, and Kubo will have to set out without either parents (his father died long ago) to recover pieces of a magic armor, to defend himself against his evil grandfather The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).
You see the difference--not so much the absent parents (every other Pixar/Disney movie premise revolves around this) as the missing body parts and evil blood relatives. The stop-motion enhanced with hand-drawn animation and digital effects is superb; nothing like stop-motion and miniatures to add tangible substance and density of detail. Perhaps most impressive of these sequences involves Kubo, Monkey (Theron again. this time as a magic talisman come to life) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) seeking The Sword Unbreakable imbedded in a giant skeleton's skull--said skeleton bearing an uncanny resemblance to the God Warrior that rears its massive head above the Wasteland in Hayao Miyazaki's classic Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
The resemblance is probably deliberate, this I assume being Laika's tribute to Japanese anime. Kubo's own power (inherited from his mother) is the ability to animate paper with music played on his shamisen, a three-stringed banjo-like instrument strummed with a large pick--an ability that reminds me of Agent Paper in Koji Masunari's Read or Die OVA, difference being Kubo's stop-motion animated powers feel clunky compared to Agent Paper's flowingly quicksilver more visually inventive origami-folding.
All good stuff; in fact Kubo is riveting up to the point when we meet the movie's big bad. We've been prepared all along for The Moon King's arrival, we've been warned of his power and inherent rottenness (he took his grandson's eyeball, for crying out loud); when Fiennes finally makes his grand entrance the picture deflates a little. He's basically your standard-issue elderly supervillain, with a petulant sense of entitlement. He has only one thing to offer his progeny--forgetfulness and immortality--and pushes it like a bad used car salesman, loud and obvious.
It doesn't help that Travis surrounds grandpa with a generic green glow not unlike the kind worn by cheesy Scooby Doo phantoms; much better are the Moon King's daughters (Rooney Mara) who glide along the ground with preternatural smoothness (they never seem to hurry, confident that sooner or later they will catch up with you). They wear what look like Noh masks and late in the film when a mask is cracked open the sight of an exposed mouth is a little startling--to realize that these chilling figures are women of flesh no matter how superpowered is a testament to the skill with which they have been introduced and developed in the picture.
In the film's climax (skip the rest of the paragraph if you plan to watch!) I like the idea of the whole adventure going full circle back to the village, as if everything was just an extension of the villagers' (and Kubo's) fears and submerged traumas. I like the idea of Kubo setting aside that silly sword-and-armor set and picking up his shamisen: of this being not a contest of powers--Kubo's against his grandfather--but of stories, his grandfather's (long violent struggle culminating in sterile glory) and his own (family fractured in body eventually pulls together in spirit). I don't like the filmmakers resorting to yet another light-and-sound show when it's already been established that Kubo's best and most powerful magic is over paper, not alternate realities (I would have thought they'd remind us of the fact that paper is made from wood cut from trees--Kubo's grandfather at this point being surrounded by a large extensive forest). I especially don't like the fact that the grandfather loses his memories and is adopted by Kubo's village--taking a child's eye and killing his mother (and one's daughter) is a terrible crime that deserves a thornier more honest resolution than a mere cleaned slate.
The vague and awkward handling of the film's climax suggests that the filmmakers are more inventive than inspired, are exploiting surface material from another culture and not tapping into that culture's deepest most powerful resource, its subconscious (unconscious, childlike, premoral if you like) self. You see the difference in the nightmare images of Gaiman, Miyazaki, Sendak: a hand slowly unfolds to present a pair of black buttons; a child watches in horror as her greedy parents turn into pigs; another child declares his intention to leave, and the wild creatures he's lived with for so long reply: "Oh please don't go--we'll eat you up--we love you so!"
Or as Sendak himself says to Spiegelman in that comic strip I read long ago: "I remember my own childhood vividly.
"I knew terrible things...but I knew I musn't let adults know I knew...
"It would scare them."
First published in Businessworld 9.23.16