The film Kubo and the Two Strings (2017) marks Fiennes’ third animated appearance as a villain, and I think it is here that his animated star image is consolidated – Fiennes’ voice denotes concerns of class, and his characters belong to an established order whose authority is threatened by the hero. Kubo draws on these themes and Fiennes’ voice is used as a strategy to define his villainous role, The Moon King, as unlike The Prince of Egypt (1998) and Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), the character barely features.
We only encounter the Moon King twice in the film. He first appears in a dream, ostensibly guiding Kubo to the final piece of missing armor necessary to defeat him – his grandfatherly demeanor helps lower our hero’s guard, leading him into what turns out to be a trap. After this trap is sprung and Kubo’s companions are killed, he returns to his home village, where he battles the Moon King.
It is interesting to analyze this second sequence, because the Moon King’s initial desire is to encourage Kubo to surrender his eye and join him in the heavens, and he employs friendly discussion to this effect. His charming demeanor is at odds with the premise of the Moon King built up throughout the film – that of a ‘monster’ who is ‘blind to humanity’, and whose rage has the power to ‘shake the heavens’. Fiennes’ vocal performance is an important tool in conveying the character of the Moon King in the few moments we meet him, and to denote that he is a dangerous threat.
The actor’s tone is genial and friendly, referring to Kubo casually as ‘grandson’ and chuckling at his own jokes, putting him in contrast with Art Parkinson’s emotional inflections as Kubo, and it creates the impression of an elder talking down to a child. As Kubo emphasizes that the Moon King is ‘old and mean and cruel’, stressing each word, the villain dismisses his objections as ‘a little harsh’. Fiennes’ leveled voice suggests control and a sense that he is in the right and it is his duty to inform Kubo why he is wrong, something disconcerting for the viewer as we are definitely not on the villain’s side.
Fiennes’ voice hardens as he describes the mortal realm as ‘hell’, and he begins to patronise Kubo, saying that if he does not relinquish his eye, he will remain staring at ‘hate and heartache and suffering and death’. His harsher inflection, and the way he stresses each of those words with increased disgust, is clearly a persuasive tactic intended to convince Kubo to join him in the heavens. In his next line, his voice softens considerably, telling Kubo that the heavens have ‘none of those things’ – vocally, he draws a clear contrast between the unpleasantness of mortality and the wonder of immortality.
The villain evokes family, and Kubo says ‘you killed them’, leading to another change in Fiennes’ performance. His voice gets louder, and he initially struggles for words: ‘No, hurgh, they brought their fates upon themselves’. He says they ‘upset the order of everything’, and he builds to a crescendo on the words ‘order’ and ‘everything’, deliberately extending the words as if trying to control his anger.
He makes one last pitch to his grandson, telling him that when he joins him in the heavens, ‘you will be immortal’. There is a deliberate pause between the words ‘be’ and ‘immortal’, as if the villain cannot find a word to express the majesty of the life he is offering. The Moon King then says that ‘you will be infinite’, but he breaks down in laughter between the words ‘be’ and ‘infinite’, indicating his sheer delight at the level of his power and the potential for Kubo. The little we have learned of the heavens implies it is a cold place without love, and Fiennes’ vocals on these two lines suggest the major difference between him and Kubo – they are in opposition because the villain simply doesn’t understand humanity.
Kubo firmly rejects the offer, and Fiennes drops his genial tone in favour of a more threatening one. His voice is angry and mocking as he asks Kubo: ‘Is this your wish? To do battle with the hideous monster who ruined your life? To prove your worth like your doomed father?’ The Moon King then turns into a giant monster and attempts to kill Kubo, but only after his attempts at persuasion fail. His last words in his human form are ‘how mortal’, uttered with a tone of disgust, implying that this is not just a battle of Kubo and the Moon King, but of one world against another.
In Kubo, Fiennes’ voice and his animated star image are important tools in shaping our understanding of the character. He appears in the film as a villain for fewer than ten minutes, but the vocal strategies employed help us understand his power and motivations, ensuring he is memorable despite his limited screen time. The Moon King encapsulates the two prongs of celebrity vocal stardom – Fiennes’ voice works to characterize the villain, through both his vocal strategies and the meaning implied by familiarity with his earlier animated work.
Reece Goodall is a PhD student at the University of Warwick, working on an industrial, cultural and theoretical analysis of French horror cinema. His research interests include horror cinema, genres, transnational genres, and authorship as well as the interplay between popular media, news, and politics.