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One String Short of a Samisen

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Laika Studios/Focus Features

MOVIE REVIEW
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

A young boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) lives in a cave on top of a mountain with his mother. His mother has been mentally disabled since she hit her head when Kubo was a tiny baby, so he is her carer. He also has only one eye, because at his birth his grandfather and aunts kidnapped and tried to blind him. The beautiful but nihilistic opening sequence shows all this. In the daytimes he goes down to the village with his samisen and some magical origami paper, and tells the story of a samurai named Hanzo for food. He always heeds his mother’s warnings not to stay out after dark — until one day he doesn’t.

Laika, the stop-motion animated studio, seems determined to make movies for children that are a dark as the blackness inside a murderous grandfather’s soul. On the surface, “Kubo and the Two String”s is not a bad film — and it is miles better than the unforgiven abomination that is “The Boxtrolls” — but its excellence is through its visuals only, not its ideas.

Video games have turned movies for children into crashing bores. Character development has been subsumed into fight scenes and cool visuals stand in for a true sense of place. Instead of a plot, the characters run around assembling the tools they need to fight the final boss. Why can’t they just reason with him? Do children not need to learn more about life than how to win a battle on a boat built of enchanted leaves? This movie takes place entirely in an ancient Japan, but in a time when magic replaces human growth. Witches can fly, inanimate objects can literally point out the next step and the dead can walk amongst the living. When Kubo ends up on his quest, he is accompanied by a talking snow monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron, whose deadpan delivery is very charming) and a large enchanted beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey, who quite reasonably asks why Kubo has a name when they don’t). At each step of their quest, the visuals go up a notch — the underwater garden of eyes in which Kubo is nearly lost is a special treat — but when it’s just another level that must be completed in the film's running time, it is impossible to get honestly invested.

What elevates the film beyond disposable junk is the voice performance of Rooney Mara as the two murderous sisters. Their introduction is through the snuffing of a group of Japanese lanterns floating on a river, when their haunting cries literally create goosebumps. We learn a little bit about why they are so hell-bent on Kubo’s destruction, but since the screenplay (by Chris Butler and Marc Haimes, from an original story by Mr. Haimes and Shannon Tindle) does not deign to give them names either, the movie fails the Bechdel test. When it comes to women, this failure of imagination is matched only by the failure of Kubo’s mother to heal herself even though, despite her disabilities, she was able to keep her baby alive alone in a cave with no money or personal/social care skills for years. Laika is making movies which are retrograde throwbacks on the gender front. They have got to think about why their female characters are only motivated to do things for and by men instead of having free will of their own. Would it have killed them to demand the sisters to be motivated out of jealousy for Kubo’s mother’s choices instead of thoughtlessly enacting their father’s wrath? Would it not have been more moving if one or both of the sisters came out from under the patriarchal thumb?

But director Travis Knight was too busy setting up the movie like a conveyor belt, seamlessly gliding the characters from beautifully art-designed fight scene to fight scene, to think about the human emotions involved. This sense of being groceries waiting to be bagged robs the movie of any genuine stakes; set pieces either go over the heads of children watching or are just not very interesting. We know that Kubo won’t fail to face the final boss, that he is a skilled magician capable of suddenly leveling up and that no one would voluntarily submit to the person who half-blinded you as a baby. So who cares? The movie then undercuts its own premise through an act of compassion to the one person in the film least deserving of it. A disabled woman is left to rot in a cave for years, but we’re meant to rally together and be nice to this other guy. Then again, he is a man, and Kubo's mother was only a woman.

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