There are few art forms as precise and exacting as stop motion animation. The impossibly intricate manipulation of physical objects frame by frame has never been a dominant style in the cinemas, and with the advent of computer generated animation, it has been relegated to dusty corners of the animation attic, a relic of a time when middle budget movies stood a chance at respectable box office success before tentpole blockbusters became the only thing in town. But, like knuckleball pitchers in the majors, a few dedicated nutjobs can still be found slaving away under hot lights and miniature sets, turning weeks of work into seconds of film. Chief among them is Portland, Oregon’s Laika studios, establishing themselves through a collaboration with Titan of the form Henry Selick, using their adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Coraline to bring more stories about children forced to confront something much larger than themselves (ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls). When Laika releases a film, it is a cherished event, and 2016 has given us another bundle of Laika joy with Kubo and the Two Strings.
Shifting their eye to a fantastical, feudal Japan full of magic and samurai, Kubo and the Two Strings follows its titular character (Art Parkinson, most well known as Rickon Stark from Game of Thrones), a young boy with only one eye who spends his days using a magical guitar to make paper dance and tell inspiring stories about a hero named Hanzo and his fight against the evil Moon King. His stories come from his mother (Charlize Theron), rendered at times almost catatonic from past trauma, who lacks the strength to join him in town but entreats him to return home before dark. For these myths are anything but, and to stay out at nightfall would expose Kubo to the dreaded Moon King (Ralph Fiennes, dusting off his Voldemort hiss) and his evil daughters (twins both voiced by Rooney Mara) who seek to steal Kubo's second eye for their father. Separated from his mother and protected by an animated monkey relic and a giant beetle convinced he is an amnesiac samurai (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo must travel the countryside to find Hanzo’s lost sword, armor and helmet to defeat the Moon King once and for all.
The story of Kubo and the Two Strings may be scaled up quite a bit from the more personal tales Laika has chosen to tell in the past, but the content remains purely in their wheelhouse. Just like Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls before it, Kubo and the Two Strings follows a child expected to endure trials far beyond his youthful years should allow. Perhaps using these tendencies as the launching pad for an epic hero’s journey was inevitable, but director Travis Knight (the President of Laika, who has had a hand in animating their other projects but steps into the director’s chair for the first time) and screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler prove themselves more than worthy to the task. A sweeping, far-reaching story told in a tidy 100 minutes, Kubo brings the heart and childlike wonder that has been a Laika staple all these years to a new era, expanding the possibilities of the stop motion technique while spinning a yarn of incredible depth and feeling. The animation will take away the breath, and the story will as well.
Laika has benefited greatly from advances in technology since the old days, making heavy use of 3D printing to craft precise facial expressions and mouth movement, making Kubo and the Two Strings look more lifelike than ever before. Of course, much of the charm of stop motion animation is the slightly otherworldly look of its hand-hewn objects, and that is certainly still the case here. Where this film stands out from the pack is its massive sense of scale; Laika’s other projects were always good for at least one giant creature effect of some sort (Coraline spider-like Other Mother, ParaNorman’s witch face inside a roiling storm, The Boxtrolls’ troll-catching machine), but Kubo and the Two Strings makes them look almost quaint in comparison, offering three massive action set pieces that dazzle the eyes and unlock the imagination. The studio keenly understands the virtues of 3D technology like few others, using the oft maligned format to add depth and scale instead of simply throwing objects at the screen. At its biggest, Kubo and the Two Strings captivates its audience with extravagant and thrilling action set pieces, but even at its largest, it never loses track of its heart.
The heart of Laika films is the core of what sets it apart from the legions of disposable animated fare released each year. As much as it is an epic tale of indomitable spirit, it is a tender story of the power of storytelling and the vitality of family, both in blood and in spirit, and those bonds that persist even beyond the grave. With a staggeringly beautiful score from Dario Marianelli, a seemingly endless array of inspired character designs, from the otherworldly floating Kabuki masked Sisters to an impossibly giant skeleton beast with glowing golden eyes, and a prodigious (though entirely too white considering the setting, with McConaughey’s lazy southern drawl particularly out of place despite his great performance) voice cast, Kubo and the Two Strings would be worth the price of the ticket (even with the extra surcharge for 3D) on the strength of these elements alone. But the strength of its story, themes and heart are equal to its technical bona fides, making Kubo and the Two Strings a fully realized triumph. This is the sort of story cinema exists to tell, a perfect melding of audio and visuals to tell a story for children that is truly for everyone. Laika films only come around once every few years, and the painstaking quality is evident on the screen. Kubo and the Two Strings stands apart from Laika’s previous work, and for a film to show up the likes of Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, it must be something special indeed. At the tail end of a dire summer at the mainstream movie houses, all it took was a little boy with an eye patch and a magic guitar to save the day. This one will be remembered for a long time to come