“If you must blink, do it now,” warns the eponymous Kubo in the opening narration of his film. “If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.” It’s the first bit of metatextual engagement that KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS has with its audience, although when the film looks as stunning as this one does, it difficult to look anywhere other than the screen. The latest from Coraline and ParaNorman studio Laika is a fully aware production that draws on mythology and familiar storybook tropes, but conclusively plants a flag for the animators at the top of the artistic pile.
Having lost one eye as an infant, the eye-patch wearing Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) cares for his ailing mother just outside a village in ancient Japan. However, when he accidentally fails to follow his mother’s warning of not staying out after dark, he summons a malicious spirit that is intent on his very soul. Teaming up with Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a beetle warrior (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo searches not only for the pieces of some powerful armour, but for a tangible connection to his heritage.
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is a film that understands the power of stories, especially those that we tell ourselves to construct our personal histories. Within the framework of the classic hero’s journey, when Kubo first crosses the threshold, Monkey reminds him that it is the beginning of his story. As the latest in a long line of ostensibly orphaned heroes, Kubo gets to carve out his own tale, and there is something incredibly empowering about that for audiences of all ages. More than that, Kubo himself is a storyteller, using a magical stringed instrument to bring origami to life and aid him in his quest. While there are definitely swords and battles aplenty throughout the narrative, it’s refreshing to see a film that places equal importance on wit, heart, and the ability to wield imagination as an ally.
The animation on the feature is absolutely breathtaking, a quantum leap in stop-motion techniques mixed with computer generated imagery. As we see under the end credits, a colossal skeleton fight is achieved through a legitimately enormous animatronic creation Laika has put together. The blend of stop-motion, technology, CG and actual sets created for the production is almost seamless, the occasional visible frame rate here and there being the only indications that this world isn’t entirely organic. Where KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS soars is in the lighting, playing delicately off a lantern, infusing an entire mountain top, or illuminating the skillfully rendered water. It’s something one takes for granted in live action, but in this unique form of filmmaking, these animation masters literally create light.
It’s unquestionably a golden age for animation, although it would be unfair to pigeon-hole KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS into so narrow a category. It’s a film that plays on the strongest aspects of traditional adventure narratives while challenging the viewer to create their own powerful stories, without ever needing to speak down to the younger members of the audience. Coraline may have put Laika on the map as the new avant garde of the animated world, but KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS solidifies their reputation as outstanding storytellers.
2016 | US | DIR: Travis Knight | WRITER: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler | CAST: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, Matthew McConaughey | RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes | DISTRIBUTOR: Focus Features (US), Universal Pictures (AUS) | RATING: ★★★★½