Kubo and the Two Strings

For children or not?

Too many films designed for younger audiences tend to dumb down their stories. They follow a certain arc that includes humor, fighting, and a chase scene or two, followed perhaps by a moral that’s good enough but fairly tepid.

It is carried out with such an imaginative array of characters and complications that it doesn’t feel like a typical movie for younger audiences.

But some films depart from this tendency and actually respect their viewers’ intelligence. Kubo and the Two Strings is a recent example.

The film uses stop-motion animation, which gives the picture a certain depth. It’s an American film but is set in ancient Japan. And though it is not quite the high quality of a film by Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Monoke), it certainly seems influenced by him.

It tells the story of Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a young boy who lives in a cave with his mother (Charlize Theron), who is ill. Kubo goes to a nearby village each day and entertains crowds with his stories, magically manipulating pieces of paper and forming them into origami shapes by playing his shamisen, a three-stringed instrument similar to a guitar. His stories are often about a samurai warrior named Hanzo, who is Kubo’s missing father.

A complex story unfolds as Kubo is magically sent away by his mother in order to escape the clutches of her sisters, who want to take Kubo’s remaining eye (he wears a patch over his lost eye). This scene alone left me concerned for the young children in the audience where I watched the movie. Was it too scary for them?

And as the story went on, I wondered, can these young children follow this complicated plot? Kubo is attended by a monkey, and later they meet Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a samurai with memory problems and the source of much humor, and they try to find the three pieces of his father’s armor.

I don’t know how well the children in the theater followed the story, but it was clear they were enraptured by it. Young children often feel free to talk during a film, expressing questions or their boredom with what they’re watching. I heard nothing from them.

Kubo does include humor, fighting, and chase scenes, and has its morals to consider. But it is carried out with such an imaginative array of characters and complications that it doesn’t feel like a typical movie for younger audiences. It also doesn’t steer away from tragedy or death.

When the credits are running—to the appropriate George Harrison song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (sung by Regina Spektor)—we get to see deleted scenes from the film, plus some behind-the-scenes looks at how it was made. I stayed and watched, as did three young girls who stood down front, captivated by the scenes. It was clear they didn’t want to leave.

Like the Japanese films it emulates, Kubo references Japanese mythology rather than Christian mythology. Nevertheless, it raises important questions that all humans ponder and need to explore. I don’t have space to go into detail here, but I would love to show this film to a group and have a discussion of theodicy.

Kubo can be enjoyed on several levels; besides what I’ve mentioned, there is the ingenuity of the stop-action animation and the music. It’s also a chance to watch an imaginative story unfold and ponder the questions it raises.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.