This animated fantasy adventure is set in ancient Japan where a young boy named Kubo sets out to find a suit of armour, once worn by his dead father.
Kubo (Art Parkinson) lives a quiet life in a Japanese seaside village, caring for his sick mother. He is a popular story-teller in his village. He plays a three-stringed, Japanese musical instrument (a shamisen), and he spins his tales magically out of folded origami. He is clever, musically gifted, and kindhearted. Without warning, his life is turned upside down one day by a spirit with an ancient grudge against his family, when he accidentally summons the spirit from the heavens above. The secret of the title of movie, which is revealed in its final “credits” sequence, is that the film’s Director (Travis Knight) has dedicated the film to “my two strings” – his mother and father.
Kubo flees from his village to escape, and his ailing mother uses her magic to tell him he must find his father’s missing piece of armour to battle the vengeful spirit. Gods and monsters chase Kubo, and Kubo knows that he can survive only by locating the magical suit of armour that was worn by his father as a legendary Samurai warrior. The suit protected his father, who died to save him.
Kubo’s quest reunites him with his past family, some of whom aren’t nice, but he makes friends on his journey. Like many other Japanese adventure tales, the story conveys definite moral messages that strongly reinforce family togetherness, friendship, filial devotion, bravery, boldness, love, and courage. All are communicated in a fantasy context of adventure, excitement, and humour. Kubo is helped on his journey by two delightful characters, who become his best friends – Monkey (Charlize Theron), and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Ralph Fiennes voices Raiden, the vengeful Moon King, who stirs the evil spirits on.
The production of the film is by the Laika Animation Studio, an American company with strong Japanese links. It specialises in stop-motion animation and uses highly evocative imagery. Laika js known for its fascination with folktales that have a wide sweep. Stylistically, its animation mixes Eastern and Western cultural influences, carries strong emotional impact, and uses striking angular shapes that are vividly coloured. The film uses puppets which move against contrasting backgrounds, and are clothed vividly. A suit on “Beetle” takes on a samurai appearance, for instance, and others wear Noh-inspired masks. Paper mâché cut-outs fly and dance around.
Stop-motion is a special animation process that manipulates objects physically to create the illusion, or appearance, that they are moving on their own, and Laika Studio uses the technique distinctively. The animation is quite un-like the computer-generated effects associated with other Animation Studios, like Pixar, that gave us “Toy Story” (1995), and most recently, “Finding Dory” (2016). Laika’s style of animation is particularly well suited to the depiction of ancient cultures and mythical story telling. It uses animation to creatively balance darkness and lightness.
As the film’s classification wisely advises, there are some scenes that may scare young children. Kubo’s journey will expose them to The Moon Beast, the Giant Skeleton in The Hall of Bones, the Garden of Eyes, and a huge, underwater creature that glows in the dark. The forbidding monsters are all created by wonderful, magic-looking animation, and always, the morality of the tale shines through in the Japanese way. The film is absolutely full of inspiring, moral teachings about how to think and behave, and the need to hang onto “memories of what we have loved and lost”.
This film shows wondrous animation at work, and is a fantasy must-see.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting