If there was ever any doubt that the circle of awesome that began with Coraline, Paranorman and The Boxtrolls would be broken, breathe relief. First-time director Travis Knight has led the masterful animators at Laika to victory once more with Kubo and the Two Strings. With the precision and delicacy of a samurai, Knight and his roundtable of figurine tinkerers carved out my heart and left it a fluttering mess, crafting a spellbinding adventure that thrums with wistful soul and spirited poignancy. In an age of skepticism and cynicism, Knight and the Laika wizards prove real alchemy exists. Marrying resplendent visual imagination with potent mature themes, they have made gold.
Like with most Laika films, Kubo and the Two Strings is more than meets the eye. Beneath the child-pleasing spectacle roars adult undercurrents. Each bit of monkeying around is matched to a bob of thematic gravity. They form a symbiotic relationship, the levity and solemnity, that affords Kubo the duality to functions on multiple levels. What works as entertaining fodder for the young ones plays as a sorrowful reflection of The Real World for the adults in the audience. This duality is manifested within the film by what would at first glance seem a throwaway pair of tertiary characters: a playful child and her deferential grandfather, Hosato (George Takei, who manages to slip a rather throaty “Oh my” into the fray.)
On the surface, Laika’s latest stop-motion bonanza is a marvelously entrancing feudal Japan quest, one that has our titular hero bounding from quaint villages, to snow-covered mountains, to dimly lit caves, to tsunami-crested seas all in search of a trifecta of fabled armor, meant to make the wearer invisible. Upon closer inspection, the narrative plot of Kubo and the Two Strings is naught but a shawl for its emotional centerfold whirling underneath; a sparkle-crusted blanket wrapped around Kubo’s true story. That story is one of loss. One of the grieving process. A somber, tearful meditation on the impermanence of the human condition. One that entreats audiences to dwell on tough times. To think that an animated movie would have the nerve to trick audiences into unpacking, confronting and perhaps even reconciling their grief.
Huddled around the altar of past family members, Hosato teaches his granddaughter a most revered rite of passage: honoring the dead. It is this ritual that motivates the emotional core of Kubo and the Two Strings. Lanterns are ignited. Stories are shared. Lives are remembered. This is how the departed are kept alive. Through memory. Through lineage. Through reverence. Kubo taps into the universality of loss, reflecting back unto ourselves our most painful moments with a hopeful tinge: not all that is gone is forgotten. It teaches audiences how to tell a story and how to keep that story merry, even in the wake of tragedy.
Kubo (Art Parkinson) keeps the memory of his father alive through sharing his story. Each day, Kubo takes his shamisen (a traditional Japanese three-stringed instrument) to the town center where he delights audiences with the stories of his father’s many conquests. There is unexplained magic that dwells inside Kubo, as it does his sickly, amnesiac mother (Charlize Theron), that enables him to bring his folded origami to life, who animate the stories he tells to the delight of onlookers.
The visual accomplishments in these scenes lay the groundwork for Kubo‘s towering filmmaking feats. On the one hand, the stop-motion technology affords the film a richness and texture lacking in traditional computer animation, and when juxtaposed with the origami figurines, the visual majesty pops even more. In contrasting the simplicity of a folded page to the grandness of Kubo’s handmade world, Knight showcases the breadth of his studio’s ability and the reach of their imagination. With Kubo, Laika has added even more layers to their groundbreaking animation skill set, extending greater depth and scale to the eye-boggling cinematic landscapes they’re known for.
Each handmade set – from the foam-spitting seas to the dungy depths of a bone-crowded cave – positively sparkles. Every action sequence is directed with intricate specificity, making the absolute most of the often mismanaged 3D format. The vast intricacy of emotion mapped unto characters’ faces are astonishingly subtle – not unlike Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa – especially for something manipulated one micro-gesture at a time. Laika has truly outdone themselves.
The Oregon-based animation studio roared to life in the mid-2000s with the help of now-departed supervising director Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline) and have made it their modus operandi to tell character-centric stories with grand visual flourish. What makes Kubo and the Two Strings soar is the near perfection of both elements. This is a story that genuinely cares about its characters, big and small, and tells their tale with avant-garde visual style.
Knight and his writers – Marc Haimes and Chris Butler – make the case that no matter how far-flung the plot (a magical instrument that animates origami, a monkey charm that comes to life) and how wacky the characters (Matthew McConaughey as a forgetful samurai-turned-Beetle, Ralph Fiennes as a megalomaniacal patriarch intent on stealing his grandson’s remaining eye), so long as the emotional core is stable and true, great wonders can be achieved. That its closing salvo slices the omnipresent emotional bubble lingering overhead with the sharpness of Hattori Hanzō steel speaks to the masterful assembly of dominoes Haimes and Butler have pieced throughout the film. All it takes is a little push at just the right point and the bubble erupts like a precipitating cloud. Leaving the audience in teary-eyed reverence. This is how you tell a story.
CONCLUSION: ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ is animation perfected; voiced with great nuance, divinely animated and rippled with decadent thematic elements far exceeding its PG-rating, this is the kind of emotionally rich cinematic achievement that only great animated film seem able to deliver.