I’m a sucker for stop-motion animation. From Harryhausen to the Brothers Quay, I have a fascination with the weird incremental dance of the puppets. There’s a tactile intensity and homespun charm in it that other mediums cannot convey.
Laika Studios‘ latest film, Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), directed by Travis Knight, is an impressive visual treat and wild technical marvel. The story is about stories and perhaps how the telling of stories is integral to humanity—in the film’s universe it is a crucial element that separates humans from the realm of immortal gods and spirits.
Young orphan Kubo (Art Parkinson) is thrust into the midst of an adventure story that was started by his parents long before he was born. He has some magical skill to manipulate origami figures with his shamisen, a traditional three stringed Japanese instrument, but he will need much help and guidance to control his powers and obtain the magical armor that can protect him from his two evil aunts (Rooney Mara) and his strange grandfather (Ralph Fiennes), the Moon King. To teach him on his quest are two teacher companions, Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey).
It’s a wonderful adventure full of magic and samurai action that is anchored by some genuinely compelling characters. The relationship between Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle is the true heartbeat of the film. Which is kind of the point. All the fantastical spectacle in the world would be totally weightless without character or consequence. And the writers (Marc Haimes, Chris Butler, and Shannon Tindle) know this. The characters have a natural chemistry and the dynamics between them are what can make a huge epic fantasy like this also feel quite intimate. And the subtly expressive animation conveys that intimacy wonderfully well.
I haven’t seen a movie mix genuinely exciting action with strong themes of family love since Pixar’s The Incredibles.
Like Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014), the worlds created for Kubo are wholly unique and sumptuously detailed. They also all favor a slightly darker edge than some of their competition. While all the Laika films can’t seem to help but end with a showdown with a big monster, their solutions are often a bit more novel than simply kill the bad guy. Perhaps not quite Studio Ghibli, but we’ll take it.
I may gripe that finding the armor pieces felt like arbitrary video game McGuffins (Coraline had this problem too), but the overall experience overshadowed these elements. The story isn’t really about the armor anyway. It’s about Kubo discovering his identity and how to end the story his mother and father began. The warmth of the characters and the respect for the audience is what stuck out to me most.
One more weird note. For a movie set in Japan, it may be a little odd that all of the Japanese voice actors are relegated to background extras. Sorry, George Takei.
I definitely recommend Kubo and the Two Strings, especially on a big screen. The whole family can enjoy this one. A lot of talent went into this project and it shows. And since music is also such an important feature throughout the movie, it seems only fitting that George Harrison’s “As My Guitar Gently Weeps” (covered by Regina Spektor) should play as the credits roll for this somber tale.