After opening in theaters on Friday, Kubo and the Two Strings suffered the worst box office numbers of any Laika studios release to date. But perhaps worse for the film, and its studio, is the casting controversy that arose amidst the flop.
Though the film is about Eastern Asia and those who live there—it’s set in ancient Japan—the only Asian actor of note voicing a Kubo character is George Taikei. The lead characters instead are voiced by actors like Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, and Rooney Mara. The child at the center of the film, Kubo, is voiced by Art Parkinson, an actor from a “small village in Ireland” who is best known as Rickon Stark on Game of Thrones. All of this has not gone ignored:
This very white group of actors voicing a mostly Asian film has been an issue tied to Kubo since the casting decisions were made, however. When Laika let me visit their studios back in June to get a look at the making of Kubo, it was the main thing I wanted to know about. Straight away, I broached the subject with Laika president, Travis Knight, the son of Nike founder Phil Knight who made his directorial debut on the project.
“There’s kind of a cultural debate happening right now that’s happening around diversity,” Knight said as a part of a long winded answer. “We saw it at the Oscar’s this year and it’s interesting how it gets framed in a very binary way; recently it’s literally been framed as black and white. I think that the way we look at it is: diversity is the accumulation of the seen and unseen characteristics that we go through. That’s a lot of different things: race, gender, age. Those are the things we see, but there are the things we don’t see like faith and worldview and gender identity.” After getting tripped up over a few words, he took a few swigs of water and continued.
“For Kubo, most of our characters are not even human,” he continued, pointing to the wise monkey Theron gives voice to. “For those that are humans, it was important for us to have authenticity in terms of the characters. Most of the characters that are human characters are [voiced by actors] of Asian descent.” Statistically, Knight is right, but this conversation isn't just about reaching a ratio quota. What matters more than most of the human characters being voiced by Asian actors is that the movie's most visible characters are not. It doesn't matter that Theron plays a monkey, that McConaughey voices a beetle, or Fiennes a god—these are the most integral parts of this Asian story, and they're given life by a cast of people completely unconnected to Asian culture.
This isn’t an isolated incident. Last month, Constance Wu made headlines when she called out The Great Wall for their casting of Matt Damon as their hero. “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world,” she wrote on Twitter. “Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon.” She could have also said they don't sound like them either.
Knight is right: diversity is more than just a black and white issue. Just like African American people expect to see themselves and feel their back of house influence in roles on the big screen, so too do other people of color, or of different genders or religions. But by any measure, Laika and Knight failed to recognize the complexity of this issue, perhaps feeling that they'd be buffeted by animation and non-human characters. The need for representation is more amplified when a story is set against the backdrop of a particular culture, though, and staying faithful to that should be of the utmost importance.
According to Knight, the casting came together the way it did for a variety of reasons. The lead actor was cast completely blind, having been judged solely by his voice. But with the case of McConaughey, it was something else. “For a leading man, Matthew McConaughey was an obvious choice,” Knight explained to me. “He’s an extraordinary actor; he doesn’t really look like a four-eyed armored beetle, but he’s a great actor.” That reason—the desire and necessity to have top-line actors tied to a movie—probably also led to the castings of Mara and Fiennes, who played Kubo’s relatives.
To point out a white actor’s extraordinary skill as reason enough to place them in a role not meant for them is to infer that there were no Asian actors skilled enough to play the character. A movie like Mulan—which came out in 1998, long before the birth of social media awareness—also featured main characters mostly of Asian descent, but in that case there was an effort made to find actors like Sandra Oh, B.D. Wong, and the lead Ming-Na Wen. Kubo should have repeated that effort.
The significance here is that you cannot on one hand claim to value diversity and seek to “honor the beautiful art of a great culture,” and then go and give the most visible (and by proxy, top-paying) positions of your film to actors not from that culture. It frankly comes down to putting your money where your mouth is. The casting decisions of Kubo were less based on Knight’s often repeated refrain of keeping the film “true to life.” Instead, it was all about making safe bets.