During a summer full of disappointing remakes, reboots, and unnecessary sequels, leave it to Oregon-based stop-motion animation studio Laika to step in and remind us that that summertime movie-going doesn’t have to be void of good old-fashioned storytelling. It only makes sense that Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest from Laika, is built based on the theme of storytelling and it’s importance on us in life, in ways both intimate and large.
“If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see, no matter how unusual it may seem,” is the first line uttered by our titular hero Kubo. This isn’t just a fantastic way to kick off a film, but it also speaks true to many aspects of the central story, which isn’t your average animated tale. Director Travis Knight wastes no time dropping us in this mythical world of magic, and allows us to become fully absorbed by it in a moments notice.
Kubo (Art Parkison) is a 11-year-old boy who lives with his mother in a small rock cave near the water, just outside of the small town that he visits during the day. It’s here that he brings his stories to life for large crowds, where he plucks his shamisen, magically bringing his origami paper to life, turning into the creatures and beings of his stories. Although he’s able to dazzle the crowds during the day, he must return home at night, as his grandfather, the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), will return with his two aunts (eerily voiced by Rooney Mara) to take his other eye from him. They already took one from him as a child, which left his father, the brave samurai Hanzo, for dead, causing his mom to flee from them with baby Kubo.
It’s at the Obon Festival, where the village pays respect to the spirits of their ancestors, where Kubo loses track of time trying to connect to his father. Before he knows it, he’s greeted by the creepy presence of his aunts who track him down and are eager to take his other eye. His mom steps in for him, sending him away with her last dose of magic. The next day he wakes up with the Monkey charm he carried with him, fully alive and kicking, instructing him to find all the different elements of the armor that he spoke of in his stories (the sword unbreakable, the armor impenetrable, the helmet invulnerable), so that he can use it to battle the Moon King. It’s during their journey that they come across a half-beetle half-man named Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) who has a fuzzy memory, but recalls being under the wing of the mighty Hanzo in his previous life as a human. Together the three form an unlikely but tight bond, set to protect Kubo from his two aunts and the moon king, taking on a various number of tasks on their daring adventure together.
The script, written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler (based off the story formed by Haimes and Shannon Tindle), takes these mature themes and make them able to be understood by a younger audience, but never dumbing it down for anyone – although some of the humor, mainly from Beetle, does feel a bit forced here and there. Kubo’s mom sleeps during the day and only awakes at night, hinting at some serious depression. The focus on storytelling and memory is at the forefront, with many characters forgetting who they are, or who they used to be. There’s also a heavy emphasis on coming to terms with the loss of a loved one, and what exactly the relationship is with them after life. This isn’t exactly the sort of upbeat storytelling that you normally see in animated films, but that’s what gives Kubo it’s weight and gravitas.
Knight, who serves as Laika’s President and CEO (his dad Phil is a co-founder and chairman), was also the lead animator on Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls. It shows, as the attention to detail and the scope of the animation is simply breathtaking (well accompanied by Dario Marianelli’s score). The amount of imagination and beauty that they’re able to bring to life with stop-motion animation is something amazing to behold (it’s the rare film I urge you to see in 3D), and it makes the whole experience that much more rewarding as you watch it all unfold. Not only is the script smart and funny, but with substantial themes and heartfelt messages, there’s plenty that will speak to its audience, both kids and adults alike.
Kubo and the Two Strings is not only a clear-standout in the world of animation, but in a summer, and year, of failed big-budget tentpoles that have brought nothing but empty, shallow, disappointment that we wish we could forget. However, we will be singing the praises of Laika and Kubo and the Two Strings throughout the year, all the way to Oscar season, where it should sit snugly alongside Finding Dory and Zootopia, competing for Best Animated Feature.