On the profound empathy of Laika, the creation of stories as a means for understanding, and the epic depths of Kubo and the Two Strings
Kubo and the Two Strings Focus Features
Director: Travis Knight
Screenplay: Marc Haimes and Chris Butler
Starring: The voices of Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara and Ralph Fiennes
Rated PG / 1 hour, 41 minutes / 2.35:1
August 19, 2016
(out of four)
Cinema's great power is in its empathy. In its ability to place us, so long as we're willing to go, inside the experience of another - to understand them better, or at all. The power to make a stranger - or an adversary, or even the mere memory of a person - more human.
I'm not sure anyone embodies this quality better than Laika Entertainment, the upstart doing arguably the best work of any animation studio currently in business. On several occasions already through just a four-title catalogue, Laika's artists have struck upon a moment of profound and unexpected depth that left me shaken. (It's happened so frequently that, I suppose, I can't very well call it unexpected anymore.) In the emotional complexity of their films, they always go a step or two beyond what they could easily get away with - always a layer or two deeper than where anyone else would be willing to go. Above all, they seem resolutely uninterested in binary interpretations of heroes and villains - or, on a more specific level, the impulses and states of mind that lead characters to become one or the other.
Laika's films have, of course, been told primarily through the eyes of children - immensely sympathetic and largely innocent ones - but their purview is not exclusive to those protagonists. Theirs is not the only perspective that matters. The adversaries matter, too - in fact, fundamentally, they matter even more. Rather than simply constructing narratives in which villains can be dispatched or killed or otherwise defeated, these movies actually deal with their villains, treat them with kindness and understanding, and find in them a reason for forgiveness and redemption. Aside from the well of compassion it takes to pull that off, it also makes for smart storytelling. Experiencing things through flawed, broken, even evil characters is often - perhaps most often - more illuminating about basic tenets of humanity than the alternative. It's through their frailties that we actually get somewhere.
At the end of ParaNorman (if you don't mind me spoiling details about a four-year-old film), Norman, the sweet, lonely young hero of the story, talks down the film's presumptive antagonist - the ghost of a girl named Agatha executed for witchcraft three centuries earlier - from the pained, wrathful quest for vengeance that has consumed her for as long as she can remember. But it's not as simple as Norman showing her the error of her ways or the futility of revenge - he specifically tells her that he personally understands the very emotions that have driven her to this. He has those feelings, too. He could allow those feelings to transform into hatred and rage, too. It doesn't boil down to good thoughts overcoming bad ones - it boils down to the connective tissue found between one seemingly pure soul and one seemingly malevolent one.
This powerful climax comes after the film had already upended our understanding of its central conflict, re-positioning its ostensible villains - an invading horde of zombies, the undead spirits of Agatha's oppressors - as victims of a vengeful mob, cursed to be punished and re-punished for their act of evil seemingly forever. Enough, the film pleads. Enough.
That film's attitude and insight were mature well beyond the genre expectations, and the same could be said for Laika's latest, Kubo and the Two Strings. Here is a film, since we're on the subject of heroes and villains anyway, very consciously set within a Hero's Journey template. But as the story evolves, it's really about so much more than just its title character's journey. Or rather, the journey itself is explicitly about understanding people - oneself as well as others - and the myriad forms and functions that quest for understanding takes. The film principally concerns itself with the very act of storytelling - dreams and remembrance, creation and recreation of myth, reconciliation of memory and fate. For Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), another of Laika's young, reluctant heroes, stories are his entire life. They are all that has taught him where he came from, and all that teaches him who he is and wants to be. He lives in relative isolation in a remote mountain with his mother (Charlize Theron), who is ill and mostly sleeps during the day. For their entire life together she has regaled him with tales of his heritage - in particular his father, the great warrior Hanzo, who has been missing and presumed dead since Kubo's infancy ... and has left some angry in-laws behind.
During daylight, Kubo finds his own way to scrutinize his past - to express his thoughts on the fractured legacy his parents left him and the paths laid out for him by his protective (for good reason) mother - by going out into the town square and performing for the villagers. Armed with a three-stringed shamisen (yes, I had to look up the name of the instrument), Kubo tells epic stories of heroism and destiny via origami, which he brings to physical life and action through his strings and the magic he inherited from his parents. Just as long as he's home each day by sundown, he can spend all of his afternoons performing, much to the delight of the villagers, who eagerly await the continuation of his stories each day.
But of course, one day he gets sidetracked, entranced by the idea of a local religious rite in which people say they communicate with lost loved ones. Keenly feeling the absence of the father he never knew, he participates ... which keeps him out a bit too late than he's supposed to be, discovering in the process the exact reason why his mother has been so insistent on his curfew all these years. When the moon takes over the night sky, that is when the Moon King (Kubo's grandfather, voiced by Ralph Fiennes) and his two other daughters (Rooney Mara, her two voices echoing against each other in a seductive near-monotone) can (and do) finally spot him, with designs on taking Kubo's right eye (they took the left one when he was an infant, and he self-consciously wears his hair long in front to cover up the eyepatch). From there, the chase is on.
Kubo's odyssey - joined by Monkey (a totem brought to life by his mother in her final act) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), an absentminded samurai and once a loyal apprentice to Hanzo himself - is driven forward by his own magic, and involves a set of tasks and objectives for him to accomplish that's pretty standard for this type of adventure story. But it is, to no surprise, filled with the warmth, wit and rare depths that have by now come to define Laika.
The way Kubo (and Monkey) create magical physical realities out of thin air mirrors the gorgeous stop-motion handiwork of Laika's artists, who outdo themselves with setpieces that are astounding in their choreography and physical forcefulness. Inspired by epics (Japanese and otherwise) as well as a bit of surrealism, Kubo and the Two Strings offers a rich visual palette in which light is constantly interrupting the dark - whether it's the intense yellow eyes floating in an otherwise dark, cavernous underwater setting, or the glow of the colossal moon that overwhelms the night sky.
Coincidentally or not, the tense, striking coexistence of the light and dark is analogous to the film's - and this studio's - wise understanding of human struggle. There is a late sequence here that strikes me in much the same way ParaNorman did. It begins with an explanation - of a sort that most movies don't bother to offer - that deepens and sharpens characters we've primarily known antagonistically throughout the film. This leads directly to an act of such great empathy that it's practically a wholesale rejoinder to the internal logic of decades of films that have come before it. Throughout Kubo we see characters in various physical forms, through various points of view - in many cases characters literally create versions of other characters in the story - and always the film finds some new prism through which to see and understand them. That sense of perspective is right at the heart of what makes Laika special. If we want to learn a little something about humanity through cinematic art, this wouldn't be a bad place to begin.