It’s hard to imagine a film animation studio that has a near-perfect record and not immediately think of Pixar. But I’d like to shift northward from sunny California, to the forested city of Hillsboro, Oregon where Laika Studios resides. What Pixar is to 3-dimensional digital animation, Laika is to stop-motion. Now in its 12th year, Laika helped to create The Corpse Bride, and went on to release 4 films of its own: Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and today’s subject, Kubo and the Two Strings. Each prior feature-length film they’ve been involved with has been nominated for an Oscar, an amazing accomplishment for a new studio. They’ve all had a separate director, critical acclaim, and masterful artistic design. Enter Kubo and the Two Strings.
Set in an alternate version of Japan, the movie begins with a child telling the story of a quest. A heroic figure seeks fabled armor that will help him defeat the Moon King, a god who has wronged him and his family. The narrator, Kubo, soon finds that this story is becoming his own, as he must retrieve the armor to defend himself from the Moon King.
So, where does this film stand with the studio’s legacy of films before it? Travis Knight, making his debut as a director, was involved as a lead animator in all 3 of the studio’s other movies. Each of them scored an Oscar nomination, and Kubo and the Two Strings earned 2, including the studio’s first bid for Visual Effects. It also scored the highest of their films on Metacritic (84) and Rotten Tomatoes (97%). But I’ll dispense with the results, and focus on why it received such a response.
First of all, this film takes the Laika standard into new light. The previous three films made use of darker settings, grungier faces, and warped architecture, though all of it was impeccable eye candy. Now, we’re handed pristine views, gleaming weapons, and even sparkling teeth! Musically, viewers were lifted high, invited to dance, play, wonder, fear, and triumph with the characters. Laika outdid themselves with this surprise film of the year, and simply looking at it was thoroughly new and enjoyable.
The performances given by Art Parkinson and Charlize Theron were fantastic and more than believable. This was Art’s first foray into voice acting for a major animated film, as far as I’m aware, but it seems to come naturally for him. Voicing the child of an incomplete family, who must gather the courage to live up to his father’s legacy, he portrays this well. Theron gives an immersive performance as Kubo’s guardian and aide. Without going into spoiling details, she nails it on the head. The most concern I have with this movie, however, is Matthew McConaughey’s performance. As the dim-witted Beetle, he definitely supplied the comic relief well, but that’s about as far as he went. Whenever he attempted to be more, it fell flat. His character needed to be far richer.
The richest part of this film, on the other hand, was the story of family. Even reflected in the title, Kubo is one string, and the other two are his parents, and with them together he plays his instrument. Every story he tells, they are there to tell it with him. His whole quest is to secure his place with them by defeating the Moon King. The conclusion to the film is one of compassion, strength, and the unity that family can create, depending on the actions within. Compassion, forgiveness, and love are very strong forces, and have a place in battle.
In conclusion, this film came together as a strong statement by Laika Studios that stop-motion animation is a current and beautiful art form. A well-assembled cast of voices brought this story to life in amazing ways, as did all the animators and riggers in no smaller regard. Gorgeous in so many ways, this film was among my favorites for the year. I recommend that everyone see it as soon as possible, no matter their age. I look forward to seeing what Laika has to offer in the future. But for now, family unites, compassion and forgiveness prevail, and the story is never truly over.