A few days ago I had the unfortunate experience of witnessing a “preview” of the upcoming generation and the effects the Internet-Age parents have had on their kids. There was a young man – late 20’s, who was put together and clean-cut (think generic white-collar), who brought his three year old son to the mall to get a photoshoot for the kid’s fourth birthday. They were quite the cute duo, which is why they caught my attention in the first place, unfortunately the following part that caught my attention involved said child being tenaciously glued to an iPhone. Now, most people have become accustomed to witnessing such tableaus of disappointment and appropriately replying with an eye-roll or muttering a platitude about the decline of social standards under one’s breath. It definitely wasn’t the first time I’d seen a child fused to a device – it’s become a lot more commonplace than we hoped and, as expected, dangerous.
But, I’m also not going to pretend that, sitting here on my MacBook Pro, I’m some kind of Luddite myself. I am a self-identified millennial, who grew up using an desktop computer and drowning myself in plenty of hours of droning, mind-numbing television. I like to think I turned out okay. But the particular issue in this instance came from the fact that this kid couldn’t turn away from the device. The second that he stepped on set to get his photos taken, his eyes were tractor-beamed into the screen. To make it worse? The father did absolutely nothing to remedy the situation. “He’ll cry if we take it away“, he said. The photographer was brimming with anger at the audacity of the father and I shared his sentiments. After some prodding from the photographer, the father finally pulled the phone away from the child, which resulted in a fit that lasted at least two minutes. After that, everything was good: his tech withdrawals had passed and he actually seemed to enjoy the day out with his father.
I say all of this, not to gripe about the youth today (which would be beating a very dead horse nowadays), but instead to illustrate a disconnect that affects many generations, but is at the forefront of the conversation regarding the current one: it is a disconnect from the real world. Okay, that sounds dramatic – and it is, but when you have rehab centers for kids who can’t cut back on screen-time, it’s worth discussing. And what better cultural vehicle is there for discussion than the movies? Yay! More screen time!
In my most recent cinematic outing, I was treated to the spectacle called Kubo and the Two Strings (Knight, 2016). The film is a stop-motion animation film about a young boy who is sent on a journey to recover three mythical artifacts to prepare himself to battle the dreaded Moon King and protect the land. The story is a kind of “new age” fable that takes place in ancient Japan and weaves in elements of Japanese history mixed in with some modern cheese, mostly found in the dialogue. Now, when I say “some cheese”, I actually mean it. Some kids movies nowadays feel the need to pander to contemporary trends in order to appeal to the youth, but Kubo manages to avoid that. If anything, Kubo is the film that 2016 needs and not a moment too soon!
While the ‘epic’ nature of the story was compelling enough on its own, I found the film to have a much more important message attached to it about coping with the darker reality of life. From the outset of the film, we learn that Kubo has a pretty rough family dynamic. His grandfather, the Moon King, killed Kubo’s father (his son in-law), holds no remorse about killing Kubo’s mother (his daughter) if he has to and wants to steal Kubo’s other eyeball, the first of which he stole from Kubo as a baby. Kubo stays with his mother in a cave at the beginning of the film and basically is in charge of providing for them, which he does through street performances in the town market. In these performances, Kubo uses tells the story of his father, a mighty samurai who goes on an epic journey to gather three pieces of rare armor so that he can battle the Moon King. He uses a Japanese guitar thing (I guess it’s called a shamisen) to magically manipulate pieces of paper and turn them into origami figures for use in his stories. He seems very invested in the fantasy world that he creates, often asking his mom to tell him more stories every night. But, aside from his storytelling in the town, his days seem more or less uneventful….a perfect concoction for an adventure!
Kubo’s mother shelters him a bit too much for his untamable curiosity and he hears about a way to communicate with the dead from a villager in town. Naturally, he unsuccessfully tries to use this to connect with his father, defying his mother’s cardinal rule of “be back before dark” and before you know it, the world is falling apart and the Moon King is on the hunt to retrieve his grandson’s other eye. Well, Kubo manages to escape all of the chaos and get a head-start on his antagonists, but not before his mother has to sacrifice herself on his behalf. Now, I’d like to just say that, at this point, both of his parents are killed within the first bit of the movie, which is a big pill to swallow if you’re one of the kids this movie was targeted towards. It’s not as if Disney has never killed off a parent before (Finding Nemo and The Lion King both did a great job of that) or even that the death of a parent is a necessary to facilitate the creation of a ‘quality’ animated movie, but it is a real part of life, which is often looked over in films targeted towards kids because of its dark nature.
The next chunk of the film involves Kubo embarking on the hero’s journey that he laid out in the mythology of his origami stories. He travels like a young Mowgli, guided by a totem-turned-monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and a samurai beetle (played by everyones favorite Texas boy, Matthew McConaughey), who act as the Bagheera and Baloo, respectively. Looming in the distance is the persistent omnipotent threat of Kubo’s own “Shere Khan”, the Moon King, coming to take his other eye away. In order to defend himself from the king, Kubo has to procure three pieces of sacred armor, which leads to three different challenges he must face to acquire these pieces of armor. As I was watching the movie, I realized how truly exciting it was to see Kubo face these challenges because of the real threat of danger present due to – ya know, the already-established onscreen presence of death via his mom. The different monsters that Kubo had to fight were genuinely scary and scary enough that it made me worried for the younger kids in the audience. None of this action was particularly graphic per se, but the character design and the art direction was enough to be more than a little unsettling. It was a pleasantly uncomfortable feeling to think, “Will these kids be okay?” and then to realize, “It’s probably good for them“.
And that’s why Kubo really sticks out to me – it doesn’t hold back. It manages to conjure up a perfectly organic fable, without playing too much into the pampering culture that runs amok today. I felt, after leaving the theater, that the obnoxious iPhone child and everything he represents had been extinguished in one cinematic swoop. Somehow, I had a restored sense of justice in the world – a feeling that the real world could now be realized. Though Kubo clearly took place in a realm with a certain degree of fantasy, I couldn’t help but notice how much it played into the hands of reality. No – there are not talking monkeys and much to the dismay of the world, there are no Matthew McConaughey-voiced talking beetles – but – families don’t always get along, moms aren’t always around to protect their kids and movies aren’t going to always end with a perfect reunion.
I’m definitely not in favor of Lars Von Trier-ing kids and leaving them questioning the nature of existence. At the same time, I feel like the last few animated movies I’ve seen have been going to soft on audiences in lieu of the cushiony nature of the world in 2016, with the notable exception of Sausage Party for reasons which are painfully obvious. Finding Dory, The Secret Life of Pets and even Zootopia, which for the record I loved, fell short of taking any serious risks. Of course, each one of those movies revolves around animal characters, which some might argue, creates an emotional cushion by anthropomorphizing a creature as a “pin-cushion” for damage which most humans might be inclined to relate to, BUT Kubo relies on these anthropomorphized characters too! Did I mention there are characters called Monkey or Beetle? Without revealing too much, I will say that they provide a significant amount of emotional weight to the film.
But, I digress. The point is that Kubo tells a new-age fable, without pulling out any stops “for the benefit of the delicate children”, all while making an important point about looking at the whole picture – not just one, preferred half. Which is actually one of the motifs that appears throughout the film: the dual nature of the world. There are plenty of examples of this throughout the film: light and dark; the sun-crested “armor” and the Moon King; guiding, focused mother and relatively aloof father; the list could go on, and my personal favorite “pairing” is through the use of Kubo’s eyeballs. The kid starts off the movie with one that works and one that doesn’t, and the Moon King’s goal – much like the goal of contemporary culture – was to steal the other one, effectively blinding him to the real/human world. But these various pairings are used to present a greater truth about the nature of life: there are two sides to everything, thus the titular Two Strings, both good and evil. It’s been one of the most successful storytelling techniques from the beginning of time – good versus evil – and yet, we seem to have dulled the threat of evil in favor of something more digestible for the general public, something that doesn’t make them uncomfortable. I was very happy to see Kubo employ that classic trope infused with the refreshing visual spectacle offered by stop-motion animation.
Now, allow me a brief aside. There are animated movies that have explored this heavy territory before while still retaining the appeal to the target demographic, the kiddoes. One of my favorite virtuosoes, who virtually wrote the book on the practice was Hayao Miyazaki. It’s a true shame that he retired, because the world NEEDS him right now. Someone needs to shine a Totoro silhouette symbol up in the sky above Japan before 2016 gets any worse! What films like Spirited Away did was tell a story, which didn’t feel like it needed to alter its message in any way to protect it’s audience. It told the story of a little girl’s move, but the chaos that follows really emphasizes her struggle as a stranger who feels so alone in a new place. It was scary at times and certainly put the younger audience in the uncomfortable place of identifying with the lonely, lost protagonist, but those were very necessary elements of the story! Without it, it wouldn’t have been very interesting, which is exactly what Kubo was, interesting. Now, I’m not trying to say Kubo is some edgy, new-age, animated movie that will revolutionize storytelling. But, for an American studio to produce a stop-motion animation movie under the direction of a first-time director, which says something significant about the culture of today? I think that’s an absolute achievement. Travis Knight, please pat yourself on the back sir. (Sidebar – I hope to see more from Laika studios in the coming years. Having already brought us Coraline and ParaNorman, they’ve got a good track record as far as I’m concerned)
Kubo is ringing a culturally significant bell right now and I think everyone could benefit from a viewing. There’s a big part of me that wants to retroactively grab that child with the iPhone and make him sit through a mandatory screening with a follow-up lecture, explaining the importance of understanding the world in its entirety. At the end of the film, Kubo has a touching moment where he reconnects with his parents, who have THANKFULLY not been resurrected in any way. Even though they aren’t with him physically and he is now essentially an orphan, everything seems like it’s going to be okay. Because that’s the hard truth in life, people die and the world keeps spinning. It doesn’t diminish the importance of lost loved ones because their gone, but they play a different role in our lives.
In order to experience the adventure of life and not merely be a passive entity experiencing it through origami (or your iPhone), you have to come to terms with what the world is offering you, without any protective padding. And though life will pluck at your two heartstrings, it manages to create a harmony with one string being what we enjoy and is beautiful in this world and the other being what is real, but very, very necessary.