Two Drink Minimum is a comedy-based column by Vague Visages writer Jacob Oller.
There is a great divide in animation. The powerful slapstick and pop culture-referencing franchises that zip along at breakneck speeds but keep pace with an over-stimulated child’s attention span are no better than babysitting a kid with a strobe light. Then there’re films like Pete’s Dragon and Kubo and the Two Strings. These, especially Kubo, draw from influences rather than shout and point to recognizable elements in lieu of cleverness. By having a well to draw from, Kubo’s melancholy becomes a fitting adventure and its jokes are what remind us that we’re safe.
When Kubo sets out on his quest to gather artifacts and defeat a big boss, it combines many elements of Asian storytelling to craft its origami magician. The tale itself is a classic wuxia combined with the insistence on family that makes the animation of Laika so melancholic while finding comedy in its structural components. (One of the oldest genres in Chinese literature, wuxia, or 武侠, literally translates to “martial-arts chivalry” and follows a martial artist on his journey for righteousness or revenge.)
There are intimidating, powerful women with hearts of gold and wide-eyed youth unsullied by the horrors they witness. To this end, Art Parkinson (Rickon from Game of Thrones!) does wonderful work as Kubo and Charlize Theron brings a vicious emotionality to her role as the maternal Monkey.
In turn, Wuxia’s Zen base influenced Japan’s Bushido code, both in history and in storytelling. Samurai had similar codes of honor as martial artist monks and their stories were and are told with a similar style all drawn from the source text of Journey to the West, one of the Four Great Classical Novels (that’s also been translated into English as Monkey). From this, you get the ability to be silly, to make cartoonish demonic villains and have goofy assistance from upstanding dullards.
Speaking of upstanding dullards, it is here that Beetle, the character voiced by Matthew McConaughey, joins the party. His edentulist smile and knack for falling without being able to get off his rounded carapace back already confirms him as the comedic relief of the film, but even this comes from a place of history.
He’s a samurai — a former apprentice of Kubo’s father — whose master’s death has left him a wanderer with no memories, only honor. He’s a ronin, a samurai without a master to serve, who traditionally functions as a representative of the lower class. This is no warlord’s bodyguard or Knight of the Round Table, this is a broke swordsman trying to put some good into the world. He’s relatable for the regular viewer — the Die Hard cop of 16th century Japan.
He becomes the everyman, the slapstick and the dummy with the heart of gold that we laugh at without mean spirit because we see our faults in someone so otherwise powerful. We think we could never be that courageous while chuckling to ourselves at his poor luck or charming buffoonery.
Kubo has his jokes as the innocent, sometimes impetuous, child, but his main role is to embody the three values of a traditional Japanese hero: Koyū, Chie, and Seishin. These define what is good and admirable in Japanese culture. Seishin, the most important, is the persistence to overcome the impossible. Chie is a core value that is more important than life, something unshakable. And Koyū is the talent that makes someone the Chosen One and that basically every grand adventure revolves around. In this case, it’s Kubo’s magical and musical mastery over paper.
Kubo embraces these qualities without need for jokes because the humor emerges from the gulf between his responsibilities and his childish desires. He wants to make paper mosquitos that sting the bossy Monkey, he wants to fall into a snowdrift after flying with paper birds, he wants to dislodge a toothy rock from an imposing cave mouth after being explicitly warned against it. We don’t get jokes, we receive gags that come from his character and his relationship to those around him. When Beetle shows up, the gravitation of humor to him is both fitting for his low-brow character and for Kubo’s personal growth.
As reference humor and pop song needle drops become ironic jokes in and of themselves, stories like Kubo will outlive them all by having just a bit of substance behind the gags.
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Chicago-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.