Stop-Motion Reaches Greater Heights in Laika’s ‘Kubo’
It’s safe to say that Laika Entertainment is quickly becoming the biggest threat to Disney’s second “renaissance.” The stop-motion animation studio from Oregon had already cemented a strong presence in animation recently with Coraline, ParaNorman and to some degree, The BoxTrolls. But with the release of their latest feature, Kubo and the Two Strings, any doubt that these stop-motion film can’t hang with more mainstream animation should simply be put to rest.
Set in ancient Japan, a young boy named Kubo (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Art Parkinson) lives with his ill mother on the outskirts of a small village. Except for Kubo venturing into the village on a daily basis, flexing his storytelling muscles, their presence in their seaside cave is not common knowledge. For the boy and his mother, that’s a blessing as the two have been hunted the past decade by Kubo’s grandfather, the Moon King (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) and his pair of masked daughters. They’re out to finish the job of stealing Kubo’s other eye, which the Moon King stole after his birth.
Like any Laika feature, Kubo does end up taking its time to lay down the groundwork of a richly developed world and narrative to go hand-in-hand. The stellar screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler gradually highlights the poignant history of Kubo’s immediate family and why these familial circumstances are the driving force of the rest of the film. Kubo himself uses his family’s conflicts as material for light-hearted entertainment in the village. And even though his storytelling is certainly flashy through origami coming to life by his magical shamisen, the actual message of courage and loyalty is what truly matters.
Once Kubo makes a fatal error that alerts the Miyazaki-inspired masked Sisters (voiced by Rooney Mara) to his presence does the actual adventure take off. To defeat the villainous Moon King, Kubo must track down three artifacts – a sword, a helmet and body armor, before the inevitable showdown. However, the film is more focused on his actual evolution as a character on this journey rather than what could make him all-powerful.
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Joining Kubo on this quest is Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron), a maternal-like totem brought to life by his family’s magic. The two also come across Beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), who was a soldier turned beetle who fought alongside Kubo’s father. McConaughey’s goofy comedic beats work seamlessly with Theron’s more mother-like monkey as the trio trek across the gorgeous Japanese landscape searching for the magical armor. They’re essentially a pitch-perfect odd couple. Also there is a tiny origami samurai, providing a few hints of comedic relief as well, acting as their walking compass.
Kubo requires more attention from the audience than other summer animated films like Finding Dory or The Secret Life of Pets. Several times throughout the film, Kubo even says to not even blink, because of the level of detail found within. That’s not even touching on the groundbreaking visual treat throughout. It’s geared more towards older audiences with signature dark themes we come to expect from Laika. And for those invested throughout it’s 101 minute run time, this may be the most tissues needed since the end of Inside Out.
Alongside a mesmerizing and powerful narrative is by far the greatest breakthrough in stop-motion animation to date. With every film, Laika continues to up their game, offering a more realistic canvas. CGI is present, but there are countless times where the stop-motion and puppetry is so life-like that you have to do a second take. The opening sequence alone with Kubo and his mother out on the open water escaping the Moon King is a perfect example of how far these methods have come. Combine that with a poignant score by Dario Marianelli that literally pulls on your heartstrings plus an end song cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by Regina Spektor. The end result is an enchanting feast on every level possible.
Laika CEO and first-time director Travis Knight fuels the film with a love for Japanese folklore and genuine homage to the genius of Miyazaki. Kubo plays its own unique magical chord, which may scare off those looking for a more mainstream animated film. Still, compared to the other animated films of 2016, Kubo is more in tune with being that brilliant one-of-a-kind experience we could undoubtedly use.