Losing a loved one is not the ending because those we cared can be found in our hearts and souls.
This concept may sound hokey, cheesy, and can probably be found on some meme floating around Facebook’s inspiration section, but that doesn’t mean it lacks truth. More importantly, it would be a fitting tagline for the latest film from LAIKA Studios, Kubo and the Two Strings, which is as much a movie about coming to terms with a deceased loved one as it is about a young boy’s epic quest.
A ways into the film, Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is at an impasse. His two companions have been defeated by one of The Sisters (Rooney Mara), who has been tracking him down for the majority of the movie. She wants Kubo to come and live amongst the “gods” and his grandfather, The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), in order to become immortal.
That offer sounds pretty appealing to Kubo (or one would have to think). This is a boy whose whole existence has been saturated with myths and legends about his samurai father, Hanzo, who passed away while he was very young. His mother, who he cared for, is gone also after these same attackers came when he didn’t heed her warning and stayed out after dark. In that moment, his mother gave the last of her magic to save Kubo and give him a companion, Monkey (Charlize Theron), who now laid defeated beside him in this ruined temple.
Why wouldn’t Kubo want to take this offer? Being immortal would keep him from having to go through the pain that he just suffered with his mother and he would become as legendary as the stories of Hanzo that he shares with the villagers. But being immortal lacks one thing — humanity.
I wrote about one of LAIKA’s previous features, ParaNorman, last week and how it captured an understanding of empathy that seems unparalleled in both children’s and adult entertainment today. This isn’t a foreign concept for LAIKA, who have built themselves on examining the human condition for all ages over the course of their filmography. Coraline examines loneliness as a child and finding power in one’s abilities. ParaNorman is about overcoming prejudice and the understanding that it doesn’t have to always be that way. While The Boxtrolls looks at the idea of class and how where you’re perceived in society doesn’t dictate who you are inside.
It seems absurd to think LAIKA doesn’t garner the same amount of appeal that a Disney Animation Studios or Pixar gets. Even when LAIKA challenges its viewers with similar (if not more nuanced) concepts as the hits of those other studios do, but also finds a way to appeal to all ages.
Much like its predecessors, Kubo goes deeper with its reading of a situation. As his companions lay defeated with the reveal (SPOILER) that they were both the spirits of his mother and father, Kubo has a choice to go a different route. As The Moon King offers him eternal life and freedom from the shackles of humanity, Kubo declines. Humanity may have mortality, but it also has compassion and love.
The world hits back hard with the trials of life, but that doesn’t mean you should give up on humanity. Much like Coraline or Norman or Egg before him, Kubo realizes that the flaws of humanity outweigh the gifts of immortality and like his mother before him, he will seek out love and compassion rather than eternal glory.
There is such a euphoric outburst in this moment that it is difficult not to recognize the immense power both LAIKA films, and just movies in general, have to convey a message in a way that is not pandering and seems genuinely enriching. It may be unqiue for a lot of children’s entertainment today, but this notion is alive and thriving for this stop-motion animation studio.
Kubo and the Two Strings is easy to distinguish as a work of art based solely on its lush and lavish aesthetic that is inspired the masterworks of origami and other Japanese imagery. But, like most of their other features, LAIKA transcends the artistry of their animation process to craft a well-rounded and truly inspiring tale of finding understanding in letting our loved ones go and believing in humanity once again.
As the movie comes to a close, we share a quick moment with Kubo as he places two lamps into the river next to the spirited forms of his mother and father. In this moment, he isn’t physically with them, but is able to feel their presence once more.
In all the intricacies and technical wonder of the animation, this moment may be the most beautiful of all.