Travis Knight (2016)
In a summer of forgettable releases and a lot of same-old, same-old repackaged “entertainment,” along comes a truly imaginative, visually rich fantasy that I’m fairly certain is the best animated feature of the year. The latest contribution from Oregon-based Laika studio, which gave us such admired animated films as Coraline (2009), The Boxtrolls (2014) and ParaNorman (2012), is directed by Laika CEO Travis Knight using Laika’s trademark stop-action animation in ways that can only be described as breathtaking. “If you must blink,” a voiceover introducing the opening sequence of the film says over the soundtrack, “do it now”—and we are immediately plunged into a roaring ocean scene and a young Japanese woman fleeing heaving storm waves. The splendor of the visual treat of that opening sequence convinces us not to blink at all, since to do so might cause us to miss the equally stunning scenes to come.
The plot of the film—criticized by some reviewers as disjointed and the film’s weakest point—is in fact one of its strengths. I say this because it is perfectly in line with J.R.R. Tolkien’s description of the major elements of what he called the “Faerie Story.” For one thing. Tolkien insisted that the world of “faerie” was not a cute little land full of pixie dust, but rather an awe-inspiring world full of wonder and danger, which Tolkien characterized as “the perilous realm.” This is very much the world of Kubo, the mysterious and awesome qualities enhanced by the animation.
It’s also important, Tolkien says, that the magic of the story be real, integral, and powerful. Tolkien had no use for little sprites waving magic wands, or for “scientific” explanations of the mythic magic of ancient folklore. For the perilous realm to be taken seriously, the magic must be respected as well. This is certainly true of Kubo, who weaves spells of his own through the use of his three-stringed shamisen, but even more so of his grandfather, the Moon King, whose enmity Kubo’s mother roused when she married Kubo’s father, a mortal samurai.
This need to take the powerful magic seriously is connected to another Tolkien assertion—that “faerie stories” have no business being relegated to the nursery, that adults can and do enjoy faerie stories at least as much as children (as in the case of, say, Lord of the Rings). It is certainly true that Kubo and the Two Strings is not simply a children’s tale. Yes, children will like it—older children will like it more. But the depth and darkness of the story give it a far wider appeal than the vast majority of animated movies.
Finally, Tolkien views the end of the faery story—the working out of the plot through some unlooked for happy turn of events for which Tolkien coined the term “eucatastrophe” (or “good reversal”)—as the working out of unexpected Grace befalling the protagonists, a development that the devout Tolkien saw as reflecting the true ultimate ending of the world, and so considered the most realistic of all possible endings. Kubo is more concerned with bringing some awareness of Eastern religious traditions to its audience through its use of Japanese folklore, but its eucatastrophe reflects, as Tolkien would have it do, a spiritual awareness in the end—which I cannot get into for fear of providing you with spoilers! Actually, I can’t even tell you what the two strings of the title refer to.
The plot, as best I can sum it up in a nutshell, goes like this: that woman in the beginning is Kubo’s mother, fleeing her father’s wrath. She gets safe to shore with her infant son—whom we notice has only one eye. The other was taken from him by his grandfather, the Moon King, and her samurai husband Hanzo perished while trying to save the boy’s other eye. Now the mother, suffering from spells of depression, lives with 11-year-old Kubo in a cave above a small village. Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson, Game of Thrones’ Rickon Stark) goes into the village each day and tells stories to the people in the town square, in which he creates origami figures from pieces of paper and brings them to life in his storytelling, through his magical banjo-like shamisen. It’s a brilliant realization of Tolkien’s notion of the writer or storyteller as the god-like maker of a secondary universe—the quality in which human beings are, Tolkien says, most like God.
Kubo’s mother insists that he return home before nightfall each evening, since it is at nightfall that she knows the Moon King or his evil twin daughters will be able to find Kubo and steal his other eye. Naturally this fairy-tale prohibition must be violated, and when it is, Kubo is attacked by his mother’s evil sisters, both voiced by Rooney Mara (Carol, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), who descend on him like birds of prey. His mother intercedes in time for him to escape, but she warns Kubo that he must find his father’s armor—the unbreakable sword, the impenetrable breastplate, and the invulnerable helmet—to protect himself from the Moon God and his evil daughters. Once on his quest, Kubo obtains the help of a very maternal and bossy monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and a fairly dim but courageous samurai-like beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey). The banter between the monkey and beetle adds some humor to the story, but we are never quite out of the shadow of the two witchy sisters, and ultimately there is a climactic confrontation with the Moon King himself (voiced by Ralph Fiennes in all his Voldemort villainy).
This list of actors might suggest one other complaint that has been raised about the movie: the “whitewashing” of what is essentially a story of Japanese folklore. The only Asian actors used—the actually Japanese George Takei and Cary-Hioyuki Tagawa—voice two supporting characters among the townspeople. Whether Knight and the Laika studio gave much thought to this element ahead of time is anybody’s guess (it’s hard to imagine George Takei not mentioning something to them), but to viewers of an animated movie perhaps it is less noticeable—the voices are disembodied and associated with the figures on the screen. It’s not quite like Yul Brynner playing Siamese, or the Japanese Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon. There is a serious gripe here, a kind of appropriation taking place, though as far as I can tell there is no direct Japanese folktale that is the source for the story. Still, Knight and the studio should have been more sensitive to this issue.
I do recommend not letting it spoil the film for you as a viewer, however. Theron, McConaughey, and Fiennes bring the wonderful animation of this film to life in remarkably vivid ways. In the end, this movie has a lot to say about the value of stories, about the value of our own stories and our own histories, about the Japanese virtue of respect for ancestors and their stories—a Shinto torii gate appears in the film as Kubo tries to contact his dead father. Memories and family are the source of strength and hope in the movie, and part of the Japanese culture for which the film shows a great deal of respect, even if that is not reflected in the casting.
Yes, I’m giving this film four Shakespeares, and I’m giving it the inside track to win the Oscar for best animated film of 2016. Take your kids or just go by yourself. I’ll add this: it’s the one animated movie I’ve seen in years that doesn’t have any fart jokes in it. That in itself makes it worth going to.