Kubo and the Two Strings and the Villains of Children's Animation
"If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish." This ominous warning at the beginning of Laika Entertainment's Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight, 2016) immediately establishes the stop-motion animated film as one where the dangers facing protagonist Kubo (Art Parkinson) are real and potentially deadly. When Kubo forgets his mother's (Charlize Theron) warning to be home before sunset, the threat becomes personified by the appearance of Kubo's aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara) – two identical figures wearing black feathered cloaks and expressionless white masks who speak in ethereal unison. Their attempts to capture Kubo lead to the destruction of his village and force his mother to sacrifice herself in order for Kubo to escape, kicking off the adventure that makes up the rest of the story. The Sisters are genuinely frightening and rather merciless villains for a film with a PG rating, raising the question of what function the monsters of animated kid's films play in imparting the intended message to their younger audience.
Fairy tales intended for children have never shied away from frightening monsters and villains and, by doing so, these monsters act as metaphors for the challenges their audiences must face as they grow up. Due to the influence of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (Walt Disney, 1937), animated children's films and fairy tales have become synonymous and can often serve a similar purpose in imparting moral lessons onto their young viewers. Author G.K. Chesterton stated that, "Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey".1 Cox, Garrett and Graham further explore how depictions of death in Disney films influence children's understanding of the concept, arguing that "Fairy tales, many of which have inspired many Disney films, present interesting and somewhat controversial portrayals of death and grieving".2 They conclude that "watching films in which characters die may help children understand real death in a way that is less traumatic and threatening," and "depictions of death may also serve as springboards for discussion between children and adults about death."3 Kubo and the Two Strings deals directly with themes of loss and remembering those who have died, as an early scene has Kubo staying out late to attend the village's Bon festival – a Buddhist custom to honour the spirits of one's ancestors. Having villains that explicitly present a mortal threat enables the filmmakers to further explore this concept of death and what it means to lose a loved one.
With its epic adventure story and mystical characters, Kubo and the Two Strings utilises the traditional plot structure and rules of a fairy tale to tell its own original story and message. The rules Kubo's mother gives to him early in the film follow a similar pattern to the warnings given to protagonists at the beginning of stories like Little Red Riding Hood – in this case, he is instructed to always wear his father's robe, to carry a wooden figure of a monkey with him at all times, and never stay out past sunset. This final rule is broken when Kubo stays late at the Bon festival in an attempt to communicate with his father, who is presumed dead. This leads to the first appearance of the Sisters and links them to the theme of Kubo's lost family. As the story progresses Kubo comes to realise that his travelling companions Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) are actually his parents, magically shape-shifted into new forms. Monkey's true identity is first revealed to the audience as she defeats the first of her Sisters, and Beetle's is revealed just before he is killed by the remaining Sister. Monkey then sacrifices herself to give Kubo time to escape, leaving Kubo orphaned and alone. These deaths are notable for how directly they are addressed – the audience sees Beetle groan in agony as he is fatally stabbed in the back, and the wound Monkey receives when fighting the first Sister continues to bleed and pain her before her eventual off-screen passing. While confronting for younger viewers, the deaths of Kubo's parents at the hands of the Sisters is vital in establishing the climax of the film, wherein Kubo draws upon the memories of those passed on to defeat his evil grandfather, the Moon-King (Ralph Fiennes).
The climax of Kubo returns the title character to his village as he fights his grandfather in the same cemetery where the Sisters were introduced. Using a strand of his mother's hair and the string from his father's bow, he summons the spirits of villager's loved ones by playing his magical shamisen to protect himself and the villagers. As the Moon-King shouts, "Everything you loved is gone! Everything you knew has been taken from you!" Kubo responds, "It's in my memories . . . and if we hold their stories deep in our hearts, then you will never take them away from us." The deaths of Kubo's parents and their sacrifice therefore serve as the catalyst for the strength he needs to defeat his grandfather, drawing upon their memory to come to a greater understanding of himself and the antagonist. The final scene of the film depicts Kubo by the graves of his parents, thanking them for the time they spent together. For while Kubo admits that the ending of his story "could still be a whole lot happier," the final shot depicts Kubo standing between the ghostly spirits of his parents as all three smile.
By presenting villains that are dark and dangerous, Kubo and the Two Strings is able to demonstrate how its protagonist finds the strength to overcome them and how the losses he suffers at their hands influence his eventual victory. The villains must therefore present a genuine and frightening threat, as their actions emphasise the movie's themes of family and remembering those who have died through stories. Having frightening villains in children's animated films therefore tells the young audience that, even if things gets scary at times, it's still possible to have a happy ending.