“The end of one story is merely the beginning of another.”
It takes an incredible amount of effort for animated films to stand out within the genre. The very nature of animated films is that they are more or less unlimited in terms of concepts. Although certain factors can still limit the artist’s ambitions such as budget and time, animated films can essentially do and portray whatever they wish. Be it talking animals, grand fantasy adventures, colorful musicals, etc., animation makes the impossible feel real.
So for films to stand out in the animated genre, they have to offer something truly remarkable both in terms of visuals and, above all else, story. Kubo and the Two Strings achieves both, but with a little caveat: it falls apart once it reaches its climax.
Explaining the basic concept of Kubo and the Two Strings is like giving away the entire movie. All you really need to know before going in is that in this film, magic is real. From its very first scene where we see one of our central characters fighting off a giant wave in the middle of the ocean with the help of her magical guitar, director Travis Knight and his team at Laika immediately drops us into this fantastical world. You don’t really need a better introduction than that because before the movie even really starts, you’ve already accepted its enchanting world and every magical concept that it introduces to you in the next hour serves to augment and complete its otherworldly setting.
Above all else, Kubo and the Two Strings is a film about discovery. We follow our lead character, Kubo, as he is unwillingly ripped away from his simple life of routine and familiarity into a land of unknown danger and adventure. With the help of a talking monkey that was brought to life, an amnesiac beetle-man, and a miniature origami warrior, Kubo sets out on a journey in search of a helmet, a sword, and a suit of armor to help protect him from his evil grandfather and aunts.
The film doesn’t delve into more detail than that. Just like an illustrated children’s book, we are given the basic plot and are whisked away into a visual journey that captures the imagination and leaves us in awe. Kubo and the Two Strings is very much a story told through visuals, and in that regard, the film is a triumph of incredible design, stop-motion animation, cinematography, and visual effects.
Unfortunately, the mesmerizing hold that the film grips us in doesn’t last long enough. Once it reaches its climax, the film tapers off into generic territory as Kubo finally faces off with his evil grandfather. I struggled to understand why the movie lost me at this point. It took me a long time to realize that Kubo isn’t really the lead character. It was Monkey/Kubo’s Mother. She’s the central figure in the entire movie, not Kubo. Kubo was merely the fish-out-of-water character that helped guide us into this strange and wonderful journey, and Monkey was our hero. Or at least, she should’ve been all the way to the end.
After a final face off with one of the sisters, both Monkey and Beetle (who are revealed to be Kubo’s parents) are killed and removed from the story. Kubo fights his grandfather alone for the grand finale, but it feels perfunctory instead of climactic. The big showdown isn’t interesting because it feels manufactured. For one thing, it’s comical just how unfair the fight between the two is. Kubo’s grandfather transforms into this giant flying caterpillar monster that completely dwarfs Kubo. Instead of being concerned for Kubo, I found myself waiting for the inevitable, last-minute solution that will allow Kubo to win in the end. The solution comes in the form of the spirits of the dead villagers, which was unexpected, but not in a good way. It feels cheap and lazy, and by this time I was just waiting for the movie to end instead of being captivated by it all.
Having Monkey face off the villain in the end would’ve been more satisfying and exciting to watch. Both characters have a complicated history, and although Kubo has a lot of motivation to fight his grandfather, the conflict between them feels distant and remote since Kubo doesn’t personally know his grandfather. Yes, Kubo has heard the stories and has indirectly experienced tragedy at the hands of his grandfather, but they don’t really meet until the end of the movie. Contrast this with Monkey, whose relationship with her family is at the heart of the main conflict. It’s really her journey of facing off against her family and protecting her son that the movie’s been following, not Kubo. When we see Monkey fighting her sisters it’s intense, scary, and full of emotion. When Kubo fights his grandfather, it’s uninteresting because he’s just fighting off a monster. So in that sense, the film misses a great opportunity that results in a clumsy attempt at subverting the classic hero’s journey formula.
Still, everything before the ending is so strong in terms of characterization, world-building, and animation. It’s a film that must be experienced in spite of its flaws, if only to celebrate originality and artistry.