Artistically dazzling, visually ambitious, and deceptively layered, Kubo and the Two Strings is an imaginative, origami-inspired animated adventure; a dreamlike, mythical tale steeped in history and the horrors of growing up; and a captivating exploration of destiny, death, family, and following your own path. Original and evocative, it’s a lovingly sculpted, fully realized work destined to be enjoyed and cherished by audiences of all ages.
A young boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson, best known as Rickon Stark in HBO’s Game of Thrones) lives with his mother and tells dramatic stories in the local village (“If you must blink, do it now”, he warns). One day, after staying out after dark, he is confronted with his evil twin aunts (Rooney Mara, delightfully malevolent), who threaten to take out his eye. With the help of Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo must locate a magical suit of armour in order to defeat the vengeful Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).
Stop-motion animation is an immensely labour-intensive exercise, one that continues to draw the smallest number of the most committed artists. While it has a history dating back to the early 20th century – shortly after the dawn of cinema – it has become especially popular since the 1990s, upon the release of director Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. (Since then, auteurs such as Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman have employed stop-motion animation in the charming Fantastic Mr. Fox and the wry, stellar Anomalisa.)
Ironically, it was Selick who was responsible for the first stop-motion film produced by Laika Entertainment, the company behind Kubo and the Two Strings. Selick’s Coraline, a triumph of creativity and a serious calling card for the new Portland-based studio, made twice its budget at the box office and was nominated for Best Animated Film at the 2009 Academy Awards, ultimately losing to Pixar’s masterpiece Up. Laika then produced the well-received but less effective ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls.
Kubo and the Two Strings represents a stunning return to form, or at least a return to the quality promised – and illustrated – by Laika’s debut. Part of the reason may stem from this film’s resemblance to Coraline: both are darker and stranger than Laika’s middle two titles. Another may be the supervision of veteran Travis Knight, Laika’s CEO and a key member since its inception in 2005. The production timeline was as long as 18 months, with Knight and his team showing a near-immaculate attention to detail.
The style of Kubo and the Two Strings mirrors much of Laika’s work in the previous three films but also marks an expansion: the opening visuals provoke awe and wonder, while later conflict scenes are wonderfully choreographed and executed. Dario Marianelli, the composer behind the Joe Wright period pieces Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, has proven his keen ability to adjust to Laika’s world, following up his work in The Boxtrolls with a beautiful score that complements Kubo’s journey, capped off with a lush Regina Spektor cover over the credits.
In a dismal desert of subpar sequels, suicidal superheroes, and shoddy summer flicks, the folks at Laika have once again provided an oasis of fun and innovation. Let’s hope the fourth time’s the charm, and they win a golden statue to put on their mantle; by this point, they’ve certainly earned it.