Combining pure storytelling, beautiful animation and some fantastic performances (and the best George Takei cameo to date), Kubo and The Two Strings proves that you don't need to wait for the next Disney movie for the whole family to enjoy.
Since Laika Studios made their first feature length with the delightfully creepy Coraline, subsequently their first big splash in mainstream audiences, they’ve certainly come a long way. They followed up with the equally well-received and equally dark ParaNorman before serving up the less critically acclaimed The Boxtrolls. In a year that has already served Finding Dory, Zootropolis and Kung Fu Panda 3 with Disney’s Moana coming soon, Laika was already facing an uphill battle to find its audience. Thankfully however, it seems very much that they have poured their heart and soul into Kubo and the Two Strings, because after exiting the screen, I asked myself whether there was an animated effort that had even come close to it so far this year.
Entering this Japanese-inspired fable, we follow the journey of young Kubo, a boy who tells stories in a small village with his guitar and magic, infusing origami and music into his performances. However, when evil spirits from his past come to hunt him, he must locate the enchanted suit of armor that his father had once worn. As with the previous studio efforts, Kubo and the Two Strings tackles some heavy subjects head on and with consequence.
Unlike some of the softer Pixar/Dreamworks/Disney efforts, it also deals with the very real consequences of loss and loneliness that really hit hard come the third act. Despite being a first-time director, Travis Knight was in the animation department for all three of the studio’s previous efforts, and it shows.The effortless transition between whimsical and somber, between fantastical and reflective is quite astonishing for a freshman effort. This is also partly due to the script helmed by Mark Haimes and Chris Butler, who’s story ebbs and flows with flourishes of action, genuine humour and heart. Although the film itself has familiar themes and messages, the way it’s portrayed and explored is fresh and enjoyable. Recently CGI has taken over the animation world, with hand-drawn efforts nearly exclusively a studio Ghibli thing, and stop motion, which is the fashion Laika specializes in, becoming nearly extinct.
There’s a reason Laika and stop-motion go hand in hand these days, and Kubo and The Two Strings is the perfect example of why. The animation here is simply gorgeous. The sweeping shots of waves crashing together end splitting thunder and lightning, lighting the skies- and this is only the opening prologue! From there on, we are taken on the journey through the beautiful world that they’ve created. The little details such as how the character’s shadows dance in the flickering light, to the kinetic and thrilling action sequences; so much effort and love has gone into the crafting of each shot. There is a clear and great affinity for the art form and the craft, and it seeps into the picture in a lovely and endearing way. Yes the slew of CGI animation is the future for this medium however, if stop-motion, specifically Laika studios, continue to go from strength to strength as apparent with this effort, there seems to be yet life in this form of animation.
A special nod should also go to the 3D format. Unlike most post-production 3D transitions that often give me a headache and are completely useless, Kubo uses the format to add an extra layer of depth and fantasy to some of the scenes without succumbing to gimmicky tricks like things poking out of the screen into the audience’s face. Tying all of that together is the wonderful score by Dario Marianelli which combines the sounds and melodies of the far-east into fast-paced adventure themes. Equally, Regina Spektor showed a lot of bravery by performing her own cover of The Beatles ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and her bravery pays off as it works very well within the film and during the credits.
Of course, the animation and the script would only prove to be a hollow shell had the voice work not brought it all to life. During the casting and production, there had been some murmurs considering the ‘white-washing’ of the cast due to the stories Japanese heritage. By the time the end credits roll, all of that will have been brushed aside. Everyone involved is simply perfectly cast for their roles and none of them seem out of touch or poorly casted for their stardom, something animation films regularly get wrong.
Art Parkinson, made famous by his role as Rickon Stark in Game Of Thrones, is wonderful as our young hero Kubo. Although he has been forced to grow up fast, he maintains that starry-eyed wonder throughout and makes us root for him straight from the offset and making us believe in his arc. It must also help that he’s playing off two actors currently at the top of their game. Both Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey are fantastic in their respective roles. Despite one being a monkey and the other being a human/cockroach hybride, they inject warmth and pathos into their characters and bring a layer of dramatic heft when the story takes some twists and turns. The cast is completed by some believably menacing work by Ralph Fiennes as the Moon King and some palpably creepy performances by Rooney Mara as the evil spirit twins.
Animation has, over the years, quietly become the most competitive and reliable genre (if you can call it that) around. Whilst the obvious big dogs Disney/Pixar and to a lesser extent Dreamworks have proven to almost always be reliable for good family entertainment, smaller studios such as Laika and Blue Sky are proving that there’s still more to discover beyond the likes of Frozen and How To Train Your Dragon.
Kubo and The Two Strings (2016), directed by Travis Knight, is distributed in the UK by Universal, certificate PG.