Film studio Laika has always stood out as a black sheep in the world of modern animation, partially because they have a tendency to cover relatively dark subject matter compared to other children’s films, as seen in Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls. However, what really sets them apart from the competition is that they are one of the last remaining feature film studios to primarily employ stop-motion animation in crafting their films. Even when at their weakest, the studio has managed to craft fun and imaginative worlds that have a certain whimsical charm based entirely on the fact that they are real models and sets photographed one frame at a time. Kubo and the Two Strings is Laika’s latest feature, and dare I say that it’s probably their best.
The film’s focus rests on Kubo (Art Parkinson), a boy living in the ancient Japanese countryside with his mother, whose memory and consciousness comes and goes while Kubo takes care of her. During the day, he goes down to the local village to perform songs and stories of heroism against mystical beasts, which he enacts through a magical power of bringing origami figures to life. One evening, despite his mother’s warnings, he stays out past dark, drawing the attention of his villainous grandfather, The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who sends his daughters (both voiced by Rooney Mara) to attack the village and capture Kubo. In order to defend himself from his grandfather, Kubo embarks to collect a magic sword and two mystical pieces of armor, under the wise tutelage of a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and a samurai cursed to look like a beetle (Matthew McConaughey).
Despite the annoying casting decision to have all the major parts of a Japan-set story played by Caucasian actors, every part is performed very well, from Kubo’s everykid charm, to Monkey’s overprotective ministrations, to Beetle’s absent-minded goofing off. There’s a lot of sly and subtle humor mixed in to a story that is surprisingly full of soft, quiet moments that allow the characters room to breathe and feel tangible. These are contrasted by some fantastic action sequences that some parents may find too intense for their kids to handle, but for what it’s worth, the kids at my screening were way into it and were rooting for Kubo and company right along with the adults.
And adults can certainly find a lot to enjoy in this film, too—particularly because it is simply gorgeous. Laika has really outdone themselves this time in terms of dynamic cinematography and fluid character movement. There were times that I had to remind myself that what I was seeing was stop-motion animation and not a computer-generated landscape, which makes the feat all the more impressive. The animators really capture the feeling of a Japanese folktale, using angular designs and flowing, colorful landscapes to craft a film that is engaging visually as it is narratively.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a fairly standard hero’s quest narrative, but its charming execution more than makes up for what could be viewed as conventionality. Even so, it still manages to provide unexpected twists that culminate in a shockingly poignant meditation on the nature of family, mortality, and remembrance. This is a film that will likely bring many audience members to sentimental tears; I will fully admit that I was on the verge, and I’m a jaded adult film critic. Kubo is a new classic of modern animation that is sure to please audiences of all ages.