Kubo and the Two Strings ★★★½

It's a bold move, and one to be respected, any time a family film tackles such serious subject matter as death. Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest from Laika Animation (responsible for the wonderful Coraline and, more recently, Paranorman and The Boxtrolls), follows the story of Kubo, a young Japanese boy who lives with his mentally-deteriorating mother on the outskirts of a small village after a shipwreck. The film's opening moments are quiet and emotionally-affecting. Kubo's reality consists of storytelling in the village during the day and caring for his mother after dark. He tells stories with the help of a magical shamisen that animates papers into props that delight the villagers. But to their disappointment Kubo never reaches the end of his story, because his mother is never cognizant enough to tell him how it ends. Of course, as we know on a meta level, that's because we don't yet know how the story ends.

The film's various musings on grief, family, memory, and human connection are well-conveyed through Laika's gorgeous animation. I cannot over-emphasize how good the film looks. It is frequently baffling how Laika pulled off some of the things they did here using stop motion animation. The designs are simple, but the characters' subtle facial movements and humanity in their eyes rivals many more detailed animated films. Kubo's paper props, a metaphor for the animation process itself, become as integral and realised to the narrative as the "real" world of the story.

The animation, and the score by Dario Marianelli, are so good, in fact, that I wish the entire film had been a silent movie. Not because the voice acting is bad: it's actually quite good, especially Charlize Theron as Kubo's monkey companion. But because the overuse of dialogue and the general clunkiness of the narrative at times make Kubo less enjoyable when what you're actually watching is so stunning. An episodic search for a magic suit of armour is a blast to watch, but its narrative justification is unsatisfying and ultimately unnecessary to the film's climax.

The opening of the film demands that we "pay careful attention to everything you see and hear," lest the hero "surely perish." It is easy to pay attention to what we're seeing, less so to an overly-talky narrative that has a taint of Japanese lore filtered through American storytellers (even the majority of the voice cast is non-Japanese actors). Japanese folk tales and myths can make for very good animated films: an example from recent years is The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. But Laika's scriptwriters feel ill-equipped to marry their thematic aspirations to the particular aspects of Japanese storytelling. The ending is particularly confused and problematic for multiple reasons, but particularly and surprisingly in light of the gentle and effective way the film has dealt with disability up until that point.

One of the film's primary themes is storytelling, to the point that this is reiterated throughout the film in such a way that it starts to weigh down the story the film is telling. The question of how, why, and by whom stories are told is as universal a theme as a film can explore. But the thing about myth is that we're able to understand it without having it explained at every juncture. Kubo and the characters here are fond of reminding us of the ways stories work — a little too fond. They feel unspecific yet not archetypical enough to be recognizable. Despite many individual moments in Kubo and the Two Strings that are devastating, joyful, and effective, it frequently feels difficult to be invested in Kubo's story, especially when he keeps making so many incomprehensible choices. Consider a film dealing with similar subject matter and themes, A Monster Calls, whose protagonist is a fully-realised human working through immediately recognizable facets of emotion surrounding the grieving process. In comparison, Kubo's quest feels more like a round of Dungeons and Dragons.

Kubo's tonal shifts between joy, tragedy, and horror are well-balanced in a way that makes it perfectly suited for viewers of all ages. They're also all conveyed best through the visuals and the music, both of which capture the emotional celebration of storytelling at the heart of the film's thesis much better than the dialogue and plot can. Pay close attention to what you're seeing in Kubo and the Two Strings, even if what you're hearing isn't all that special.