'Kubo and the Two Strings'
Ever since launching with the masterful ‘Coraline’, Laika has been one of the most consistent animation factories on the planet. Though essentially trafficking in kiddie entertainment, the stop-motion studio always executes its visions with remarkable artistry and offers stories just outside of the mainstream to please youngsters who aren’t easily seduced by simple Disney magic. The studio’s latest endeavor, ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’, is its most ambitious production to date, a wild and epic tale mixing action, heart, humor and fantasy together until they become indistinguishable.
The film almost feels like a collection of all of the best elements of ‘Kung Fu Panda’ with none of the schmaltz and infinitely more visual imagination. How a movie this wild and weird will fare with mainstream audiences is a reasonable question, but it proves that Laika’s animation team has grown considerably in ambition and craft from even their own typically high standards. Hopefully it’ll bring in enough cash for them to get even more ambitious next time.
The story is deliberately crafted to play as myth (loosely based on Japanese folklore), one that you’ll feel like you’ve heard before and not necessarily in a bad way. It’s about a young boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) who grew up in a fantastical ancient Japan with a mother who seemed incapable of speaking of their tragic past. Instead, origami characters would act out her memories and fears, at times uncontrollably. Kubo has the ability to manipulate paper to his whims as well, and he frequently goes to the village to play his shamisen (a traditional guitar-ish instrument) and tell wild tales of soldiers and monsters through origami. Back story is slowly revealed as Kubo is unexpectedly thrust into a quest to find a mythical sword and armor to fight an evil moon king (Ralph Fiennes). He’s pursued relentlessly by the king’s evil and ghoulish twin daughters (Rooney Mara), but also meets two new friends in the form of a wise but angry monkey (Charlize Theron) and a former warrior turned into a giant beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Revealing more would be unfair, but suffice to say it’s a wild ride.
More than anything else, ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ is worth seeing on the biggest screen possible for its absolutely astounding imagery and animation. Deftly extending the stop-motion work with digital animation, the film somehow feels both handcrafted and epic. Action scenes explode off the screen with visceral excitement, yet even the quieter moments have an infectious energy through their beautifully strange designs. It’s a stunning technical achievement from Frame One with an indescribable tactile quality only possible in stop-motion. Though the story is very much an adventure/fantasy piece, the good folks at Laika still add touches of the horror imagery that defined their previous movies. Laika is one of the few animation studios unafraid to slip that genre into children’s entertainment (despite the fact that the line between traditional fairy tales and classic horror is virtually non-existent), and director Travis Knight mixes wonderment and nightmarish imagery to glorious effect.
While the deliberately simple and traditional narrative pushes all the right emotional and entertainment buttons, this is unfortunately the most conventional film that the studio has made to date, outside of the almost experimental visuals. The emotional core is strong, peaking with some hauntingly moving imagery that will linger long in memory. However, the adventure beats in the middle with a child hero and two cartoonishly goofy sidekicks can feel a little routine and conventional, and distract from everything else the movie does so well. ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ drags and sags a bit in the middle, as if the filmmakers were nervous that their latest project was too odd and ambitious, so they tried to add more commercial elements. It’s still rather amusing and the tale is well told with strong vocal performances from the cast, but this is likely Laika’s weakest story even if it’s the most accomplished production.
Still, those complaints are quite minor in the grand scheme of what the studio has done here. It’s a remarkable technical achievement as well as a thrilling work of almost psychedelic imagery and pure cinematic storytelling. The main reason the bonding and comic relief scenes can feel tedious is that viewers are treated to a mixture of pure cinematic entertainment and almost art film-level transcendent imagery when the flick hits its stride. This is a wonderful family film, but also something worth seeking out on the big screen for anyone interested in the art and craft of film. The folks over at Laika have been pushing the boundaries of their craft from the beginning and this latest feature is truly a wonder to behold. If the company can just find a script as strong and ambitious as its imagery next time, it just might deliver something timeless. For now, brilliance will have to do.