With a whopping 96 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and having peaked at number four in the box office in this its opening week, Kubo and the Two Strings is currently LAIKA studio's most highly rated release to date. But with its themes of death, vengeance and its slightly sinister animation aesthetic, is it going to be suitable for some of our younger audience members?
Given an official PG MPAA rating for its inclusion of scary images, scenes of action and peril and for containing some adult thematic elements, lets unpack these different components to see whether Kubo may, at times, prove a little too eerie for youngsters, and those easily spooked adults, alike.
The Plot (Warning: Contains Spoilers)
Kubo is the fourth full-length stop-motion animation feature release from US animation studio LAIKA. Their previous three releases, Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls firmly established their approach as more Brothers Grimm than Disney, dealing in themes of the supernatural, often indulging in the idea of spirits, ghouls and fantastical other-worldly creatures. Of course, these ghouls are always defeated by the young protagonist and their entourage of unlikely heroes, but that doesn't make them less potentially terrifying.
Kubo is no exception to the LAIKA narrative legacy. A smart, sweet young boy who lives with his mentally disturbed, widowed mother in a peaceful Japanese sea side town, Kubo is a lovable protagonist with a melancholic past. His grandfather, the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) plucked out one of Kubo’s eyes when he was an infant, and to stop him plucking out the other, Kubo’s father, the great warrior Hanzo, sacrificed his life.
Whilst this back-story is somewhat disturbing, the animators give Kubo a rather becoming sweeping fringe and eye-patch combo to make this tragedy more child-friendly, somewhat akin to Harry Potter’s scar, a benign reminder of a dark past:
Kubo’s quest begins when his life is suddenly flipped upside down after accidentally summoning a spirit from the past who implements an ancient vendetta, costing him his mothers' life in a rather Bambii-esq twist which some viewers could find upsetting. With the Moon King (his grandfather) now hell-bent on plucking out his remaining eye, Kubo must, with the help of lovable sidekicks, Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McCognaughey), retrieve his fathers legacy. A magical suit of armor which will allow him to defeat his evil grandfather once and for all.
The quest eventually leads them to the Hall of Bones, which as you may expect, is fittingly spooky. Mimicking Indiana Jones, Kubo, Monkey and Beetle try to retrieve the ’Sword Unbreakable’ — which turns out to be a fake — and results in an impressive battle sequence after a giant, rather terrifying skeleton emerges from the ground. This is a moment to prepare for if you’re watching with more fragile viewers, but without giving too much away, you might suggest to them that it’s highly likely that things work out for Kubo and friends — in the end.
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Introducing Kubo's Villains
The scare-factor of each of LAIKA's films is of course, most fully embodied by their villains. To get a real sense of their more macabre visual style, it’s a good to get reacquainted with some of their previous anti-heroes:
The Snatcher (Boxtrolls)
Other Mother (Coraline)
Whilst perhaps less scary than Coraline’s ‘Other Mother,’ Kubo does provide some pretty creepy bad-guys. Firstly, there’s the Moon King played by Ralph Fiennes, who has something almost a little Voldemort-like about him, mostly because he is Fiennes' anti-hero spirit-animal:
A host of creepy spirit-world type creatures which, in addition to the gigantic Hall of Bones skeleton, includes a gigantic centipede:
Or for a more behind the scenes look:
But perhaps most sinister of all are Rooney Mara’s Moon Sisters, the Moon King's assassin daughters who hover above the ground and conceal their faces behind stationary Noh masks:
It’s not just their appearance which casts a ghastly specter, it’s Mara’s hauntingly hollow voice which really gives the sisters and their in-unison vocals a real edge when it comes to Kubo's most terrifying characters. For a taster of what’s to come, you can hear a quick sample of their voices at one minute, nine seconds in the trailer:
Uplifting Moral Sentiment
No film aimed specifically at children comes without a deeper, moral message and Kubo’s is deeper and more complex than most. Whilst taking on tropes which are similar to LAIKA’s previous films, Kubo exceeds them, exploring themes of death, loss and grief in a way which we’ve not seen done so eloquently for some time. In this regard, Kubo offers children (and adults alike) a safe space in which to explore what it means to lose a loved one, and how the love for them extends far beyond their physical passing, giant skeletons, evil grandfathers and twisted twin-aunts.
All in all, our verdict? Kubo’s scarier elements are completely necessary in making the world seem overall, a less perplexing place to exist. Go and see it.