CHICAGO (Christian Examiner) – What do you get when you fill a supposed kid-friendly movie with Japanese spirituality, ancestor worship and reincarnation?
Answer: Kubo and the Two Strings.
Kubo (PG), currently in theaters and getting rave reviews from mainstream critics, follows a boy named Kubo as he searches for answers about his deceased father and also hunts for his dad's magical armor. Why does he need that? To protect him from the evil spirits of his grandfather and his two wicked aunts, of course. But don't worry: He has two companions to accompany him on the journey – a monkey and a giant beetle, each of whom formerly were people close to him but stayed in this world thanks to reincarnation. Along the way, he also prays to his father.
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Christian families with young children might be tempted to just skip this story altogether – preferring to delay the worldview discussion for a later date -- but thanks to film partnerships with Burger King, Nike Air Jordans, and the government-funded DiscoverTheForest.org, kids likely will already know something about the characters. (I wonder when DiscoverTheForest.org will partner with a Jesus cartoon.)
I actually watched Kubo with my 8-year-old son and had a good Bible talk with him on our ride home, but this movie definitely is not for every kid.
Let's take a look at the details.
Kubo is Laika Entertainment's fourth film – all of which have featured stop-action animation. This is the stuff you may have seen as a child in the 1964 classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, yeta million times better. The animation in Kubo is a delight to watch.
The film does a nice job of introducing children to Japanese culture (even though, for some families, it goes too far – see below). Origami paper creations play a critical role in the plot, as Kubo's magical shamisen musical instrument brings them to life. We see Kubo and his mom (Charlize Theron) eat with chopsticks, and we later watch Kubo and his two reincarnated companions eat raw sushi. We also learn about samurai.
The movie upholds the value of the traditional family (Kubo wants a mom and a dad), and it also has enough adult-oriented humor – that is, clean jokes that will makes parents laugh.
Families with small children may find their kids growing restless, as this movie's storyline moves far slower than the typical kid flick. (Even slower than, for instance, The BFG.)
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But that's the least of the problems with Kubo for children. Its scary parts really are scary, enough even to creep me out. The two evil aunts float slowly above the ground, wearing those eerie-looking Greek-theater masks (meaning their mouths don't move when they talk). There are several battle scenes involving the aunts, and in the movie's climax, the evil grandfather fights Kubo and then turns into a huge dragon.
The movie's worldview, though, is what will scare away lots of families. Essentially, it is a crash course on Japanese religion: Shinto and Buddhism. An elderly woman points to lamps and altars and tells Kubo, "We use these to speak to the loved ones" who are deceased. Moments later we see Japanese families gathering at various altars to communicate with dead relatives. (One girl exclaims, excitedly: "Grandma is here!") Kubo carries a charm in his pocket which later comes to life, and later he believes his father is communicating to him through an origami. The word "reincarnation" isn't used, but we do see golden herons and hear that they supposedly "hold the souls of the departed" and that the "end of one story is merely the beginning of another."
Coarse language is minimal and only includes one "hell" (referencing the actual place).
Some parents may find the basic plot problematic: Why make a kids' movie about a boy fighting his two aunts and grandfather?
Even without the worldview issues, I found the plot a bit confusing and simply not that enjoyable.
Lessons for Families
Sure, there are lessons about sacrifice and love, but it is tough to watch Kubo without tackling worldview issues head-on.
The Bible repeatedly refutes reincarnation (Hebrews 9:27, Luke 23:43, Matthew 25:46). Kids may naively label "reincarnation" as sounding "fun," but we should ask them: Why would we want to be reincarnated when we can instead be in heaven -- a far better place?
Scripture also teaches that ancestor worship is futile, because once we die we go either to heaven or hell (Luke 16:20-31, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, Hebrews 9:27, Revelation 20:11-15). We also are not to pray to anyone but God (Exodus 20:3-6). My kids may wish they could talk to great-grandmother, but I've got to remind them that she is in a better place – and that we will see her someday if we follow Christ.
The Verdict: OK for Small Kids?
Kubo's scary scenes make it a no-no for my 4-year-olds – with or without the worldview problems. I can't recommend this one for small children, although for families who are ready to discuss Japanese spirituality with their older ones, the other content problems are minimal.
Entertainment rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 3 out of 5 stars.
Kubo is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril.
Language: "Hell" in reference to an actual place.
Violence: Kubo and his mother battle the evil aunts, but it is more scary than violent; the monkey battles one of the aunts on a ship during a lengthy, dark and violent sequence. She dies; Kubo and his companions battle the other aunt in one of the final scenes; Kubo battles his grandfather in the film's climax. The grandfather turns into a dragon, and Kubo eventually wins.