“If you must blink, do it now.” Those words told in voiceover kickstart Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest effort from Laika, the stop-motion,animation studio that has brought us Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. They are a production company whose films have blended majestic visuals with thoughtful, heartfelt stories resonating effortlessly with one another to deliver impressive works of cinematic art. Kubo is their strongest work to date, a powerful story at its core with some of the most magnificent animation bringing it to visual life. Easily a strong, early contender for animated film of the year, Kubo takes adventure storytelling as well as stop-motion animation to stirring, new heights raising the bar even higher in this particular field of filmmaking.
The boy at the center of this story, the boy who delivers that opening line about keeping your eyes firmly locked to the screen, is young Kubo (voice by Art Parkinson). He lives in a small village in ancient Japan caring for his mentally ill mother and spending his days at the center of the village singing tales of ancient warriors and hideous monsters and bringing his stories to life with the help of a shamisen. The sounds from Kubo’s stringed instrument have a funny way of creating origami figures and magically bringing them to life, recreating the boy’s stories as he’s telling them. Kubo’s life is far from perfect – the eyepatch covering a wound from birth at the smaller end of his spectrum of problems – but the boy makes the best of it with his mother. Her moments of lucidity where she recounts stories about Kubo’s father, a fabled, Samurai warrior, give the boy peace and a sense of hope for the future.
All of that changes when an ancient evil, who is actually Kubo’s grandfather to be more precise, discovers the boy’s whereabouts. You see, Kubo’s grandfather on his mother’s side is the Moon King (voiced by Ralph Fiennes), the sadistic spirit who took the boy’s eye as an infant in the hopes of blinding him. Upon learning of the boy’s location, the fiend dispatches his remaining, two daughters, witches, to retrieve the boy. Kubo soon finds himself far from home and without the comforts of his youth. Aided by Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and Beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) and armed only with his musical instrument Kubo set out on a quest to find a lost suit of armor that will be imperative if he is to defeat the Moon King once and for all.
Those words of narration that open the movie are more than just a clever way of beginning the visually impressive adventure that is to come. Your eyes will surely be locked on the adventure unfolding through animation techniques that can only be described as magical. Kubo and the Two Strings is about much more than that adventure, though, screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler injecting so much depth into the story here that many parts reveal themselves via layers and layers of creativity.
At its heart Kubo is about storytelling, about how those stories connect us to our past and, for better or for worse, make up everything we know of the world around us and even ourselves. We latch onto the stories we’re told, as the people of Kubo’s village latch onto his stories, because they represent all that we’ve ever known, their importance to our world, to any world, undeniable. It’s just as undeniable as the effect the stories told today will have on the future, and that fact is a very powerful realization. Storytelling can cause an immense amount of change, the fluidity that comes with recounting tales and fables giving the storyteller a tremendous amount of power.
The depths of which Haimes and Butler dig for their story’s subtext has no effect of dulling the surface level adventure on hand. Kubo was directed by Travis Knight, lead animator of Laika’s three, previous films, and the director’s history with the studio gives his work here a level of comfort and effortlessness rarely found elsewhere. The early efforts from Pixar may be the only comparison, but Knight’s handling of the characters and animated worlds created for Kubo set this film apart from even that other animation studio.
Kubo is a film that comes with a healthy dose of superb window dressing, as well, and it goes far beyond the immaculate work the animators have done on the designs of the various characters. You’re often immersed into this world of feudal warriors and smokey spirits, you’re belief in what you’re seeing as genuine as that of a live action film.
The story’s true depth may be lost on some younger viewers, but the children’s adventure movie on the surface is one loaded with brilliant set pieces and perfectly timed comedy. McConaughey’s Beetle character, a former Samurai who has been cursed to look like a giant bug, provides the lion’s share of the humor with Theron’s Monkey providing a strong, grounded paragon for any child of a certain age. All of this grand, window dressing serves the story and animation techniques extremely well, creating a near perfect viewing experience for anyone of any age.
There has been something of a renaissance for stop-motion techniques as of late, last year’s Anomalisa seemingly reaching heights in animation that wouldn’t be overshadowed any time soon. Leave it to Laika, the company that started that renaissance, to sweep past all of the competition and deliver something truly unique. Elegantly crafted, and visually as well as emotionally mesmerizing, Kubo and the Two Strings will surprise you with how much the world of animation still has to offer. Your vision will undoubtedly be locked to the screen, your senses will be filled with raw, effecting power – a cinematic and storytelling achievement that is sure to tug on more than a few strings in your heart. Kubo and the Two Strings is a masterpiece of animated filmmaking, something that should no longer surprise you when a studio like Laika is involved.