Oregon’s Laika has become the animation house to watch for family features a bit to the left of your Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks offerings. With darker visual textures in stop-motion wonders such as Coraline and The Boxtrolls, Laika has shown an interest in reflecting intense childhood fears on the silver screen, while also making room for a healthy amount of heart and humor. The studio’s latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, looks eastward for visual inspiration and comes out with a measured and beautiful adventure tale less gothic than previous films but with just as much invention and weighty family-friendly drama.
In ancient Japan, Kubo (Art Parkinson) tells stories for a community hungry for them, with help from his sickly mother. The stories concern the deeds of the great samurai Hanzo and his struggle against the enigmatic Moon King, but events conspire to sweep Kubo on an adventure very much like those in his heroic stories, though riddled with humbling danger and the highest of stakes. With help from matter-of-fact Monkey (Charlize Theron) and bumbling Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo must gather the scattered pieces of Hanzo’s armor and bring low the dreaded Moon King.
Stop-motion is one of the more inherently impressive filmmaking techniques, as it takes hours to produce one second of usable footage. But the form is particularly well utilized here. The character models (said to carry an unprecedented number of facial expressions for physical models) always convince, and the blend of in-camera animation and digital compositing is seamless. In addition, bright and dynamic colors light up the screen, and Kubo’s manipulation of origami for his stories makes for a whole other layer of beautiful animation… within a beautiful stop-motion animation. The overall effect is a stunning but lush visual cornucopia that is a privilege to see unfold on the big screen.
The character models convince, and the characters proper do as well. Kubo is caught in a fairly typical anointed-one narrative but his passion is always balanced with the fact that he’s still an immature child. Monkey’s dignified straight-woman role chafes against Beetle’s clumsy samurai errant, leading to some fun comic relief. But while the film can be playful this is a very mature production, culminating in a sweeping emotional gesture from Kubo to save the day.
But the true triumphs of character design and realization are the villains and monsters, which are across the board excellent. The monsters include what is purported to be the largest stop-motion model put to film, and implacable underwater nightmares. As for the villains, meet the magnificently creepy Sisters, sure to give a few unsuspecting children sleepless nights. And when the forces of good and evil clash, the results pop on the screen. Usually, stop-motion action is tough, often looking stylized to the point of stiltedness. Unlike in a live-action film, action can’t be cut together in the editing room; a stop-motion action sequence must be painstakingly and exactingly choreographed and programmed into motion control rigs. The team at Laika does an exemplary job, and so the action comes out fluid and engaging, with a fight on a ship claiming a spot as one of the fights of the year so far.
A few of the action sequences end a bit jarringly, however, and this gets to the most prominent flaw of the film. For a movie so very much about storytelling, there are reveals and twists that spring out of the narrative very abruptly. These are not derailing moments, but the suddenness is noticeable. Given that the passion for spinning a yarn comes out of every pore of the movie, it’s ironic that a few narrative elements feel rushed.
Kubo and the Two Strings doesn’t pull too many punches for a children’s movie, as in the opening minutes Kubo is revealed with his eye having just been ripped out, and the area still bloody. This unflinching maturity, paired with the relatively leisurely pace, marks out Kubo and other Laika films as sophisticated storytelling for families but also may alienate some younger audience members. However, the charms of the animation and strong character work should have more universal appeal. Kubo is an imperfectly told story, but is brought to life with wonderful animation and a great well of humanity. It boasts likable heroes doing battle against intimidating villains, very much a hallmark of the kinds of stories Kubo himself tells with a great boyish enthusiasm. And it’s the mildest of spoilers to say, but it’s been a while since the meaning of a title has been revealed so emotionally. A strong 8/10.
P.S.: Art Parkinson voices the lead in Kubo and the Two Strings. Isaac Hempstead-Wright voices the lead in Laika’s previous film, The Boxtrolls. Parkinson plays Rickon Stark on Game of Thrones, while Hempstead-Wright plays Bran Stark on that show. Laika’s working their way through a generation of Starks! Why not hire Maisie Williams for the next film and keep it going?