Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
dir. Travis Knight
written by: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler, Shannon Tindle
starring: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara
3.25 out of 4 stars
Cultural appropriation damages dignity for those at the receiving end. From “Bollywood” ass shaking to Rooney Mara and Johnny Depp needlessly taking Native American roles, stereotypes are constantly thought of as a grand idea to wrangle in some extra bucks from moviegoers; like Jim & Jane ‘Merica ain’t gonna see Pan cuz Tiger Lily is played by Q’orianka Kilcher. Movies are filled with racism, slurs, whitewashing, and even unintentional stereotyping. Americans can’t help themselves, and even amid the frequent coverage, these projects keep getting green lit. Thank goodness for movies this year like Seoul Searching, Spa Night, Morris from America, and even The Jungle Book for getting it right (Neel Sethi was a fantastic choice, and those Idris Elba was hidden, you can’t deny the voice was unstoppable).
In Kubo and the Two Strings, the directorial debut for lead animator of Paranorman and Coraline Travis Knight, a boy hidden from his mother’s family discovers her half remembered fantasies derive from her own dark battles. Skilled with origami and a magical shamisen, young Kubo entertains his rural Japanese village minstreling his samurai father’s epic quests. When his monkey Talisman and a beetle warrior must rescue him from the nocturnal sorcerer relatives, Kubo embarks to find the legendary suit of armor to defeat his grandfather The Moon King.
The weakness in the structure of this movie lies in the screenplay, and that’s mostly from a step toward unadventurous development. From a screenplay by Chris Butler (director of Paranorman!) and Marc Haimes (producer of Hotel for Dogs?) with story credits for Shannon Tindle (Coraline animator), the trio deviate minimally from a standard voyaging trip. There is a quest for a trio of items in order to stop a bad guy. Tension is never maintained, thanks to the beetle warrior, voiced by weakest link Matthew McConaughey, and the few Asian actors voice roughly five percent of the movie, including social media maestro George Takei and The Last Emperor star Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. It’s hard to despise the cast though, when filled with ample comedic performances (Brenda Vaccaro is a sassy old village woman–”That’s good lint..”) and genuinely touching deliveries (Charlize Theron puts heart behind the monkey), but doesn’t one believe Ming-Na Wen would have owned the monkey or Constance Wu could take a shot at Rooney Mara’s spooky but repeatedly unwise casting?
Terrible decisions in pre-production can’t diminish the quality of this film. Where the script doesn’t astound, every scene is painstakingly crafted; not a single meal is prepared with character missteps, not a slip of paper is left with a sloppy crease. From character design to costumes, to Dario Marianelli’s score, and every brilliant shot and detailed set, Knight and crew designed a breathtaking display of stop motion marvel. The dream sequence where Kubo meets his grandfather amid a sea of origami paper rustles with majesty. The spectacular opening of mother and child at sea details the intricacy of camerawork, from cinematographer Frank Passingham (Chicken Run), mixed with the giant waves (along with everything else in this movie) is a striking introduction. Outstanding beauty can hide plenty flaws.
Sometimes a quandary is discovered where appropriation and appreciation blur. What we discover or what we are taught from an early time affects perceptions and prejudices held over into adulthood. Kubo and the Two Strings dances over that line, managing authenticity while whitewashing and promoting little. Damage was not done, and the production was brilliantly designed and a gorgeous spectacle. Who can tell where the mindless casting lies? Producers and executives are my guess; now we need to continue to vocalize for an Asian preteen to have a damn shot!