“If you must blink, do it now.”
The opening line of Laika’s latest animated gem, Kubo and the Two Strings, could very well be a mantra for the plucky studio’s entire filmography. From Coraline to The Boxtrolls, Laika has been a factory for unmissable visuals, original storytelling, and films that skew the line between “family fare” and “artful cinema” for years. Their stories are often simple, but their worlds are anything but. If you blink, you could very well miss a minute moment of craftsmanship itself lightyears beyond something you might see today’s usual animated blockbusters.
If their handcrafted worlds of wonder weren’t enough to earn our praise, Laika also consistently pulls off narrative complexity reserved for prestige dramas and every other Pixar film. In Kubo, first time director and longtime studio CEO Travis Knight tells us the story of a young boy, a storyteller who peddles tales of adventure in the town square to support his ever-fading mother. As we unravel Kubo’s tales, we are also introduced to his cosmic importance, which leads to its own grand adventure filled with discovery and complexity. It’s an energetic adventure film starring a boy (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Art Parkinson), his protective magical monkey (Charlize Theron), and a samurai beetle with memory loss issues (Matthew McConaughey). But it’s also a story filled with cultural depth and heartbreak; a story that deals with mature issues such as caring for a parent with an Alzheimer’s-like ailment, a child being thrust into maturity too soon, and the essential heartbreak that defines the human experience. It’s this narrative artfulness that gives Kubo a transcendent quality – it’s far more than just a handcrafted kids film.
Considering the description, it might sound like a bit of a downer, or perhaps even the kind of movie that might hew a little too dark for the little ones. Not being a parent or a child (at least not in the literal sense) myself, who am I to say? What I can say is that Kubo’s darkness is in service of its greater sense of earnestness. Where other films – especially animated family movies – might cut towards cheap cultural appropriation or surface-level humor, Kubo encourages its audience to confront its themes and emerge from its thoughtfully crafted story with a jumping-off point for a discussion about family, loss, and humanity. It’s far more Kurosawa than Kung Fu Panda by any measure.
If it were just an earnest, ambitious story and average animation, Kubo would still be plenty charming. Matthew McConaughey and Charlize Theron both breathe life into their very different characters and Art Parkinson is both a steadfast narrator and a wide-eyed kid. The latter’s work is particularly enjoyable considering his line-less existence in the last season of Game of Thrones, at least for me. Kubo is further proof that Laika’s team casts their films beautifully and despite the fact that they are using a predominantly white voice cast for their leads (including Ralph Fiennes and Rooney Mara in two more devious roles), they’ve also filled the background with more culturally appropriate actors like George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. The world fits together well and has an air of authenticity.
The best part is that it’s not just an ambitious story with average animation. It’s an ambitious story told with some of the most gorgeous animation that Laika has delivered to-date. Their best work is exceptionally detailed in quieter moments and expansively mind-blowing in its big sweeping action. Kubo is an example of heavy doses of their best work. It’s one thing to meticulously design beautiful characters and another to put them into elegant motion and make it all look easy. Kubo accomplishes this and more to the extent that it’s hard to believe it’s stop-motion animated.
It’s hard to say that a movie like Kubo is the beautiful summer movie that 2016 deserves – it’s more likely to be overshadowed at your local cineplex by less-ambitious, more poorly executed projects – but it’s certainly the antidote for those feeling down about what summer 2016 has offered up thus far. It’s a multi-layered, lovingly crafted work of art that is the work of a studio that continues to push the envelope of not just stop-motion animation, but innovative storytelling and world-building. It’s the exact kind of original movie that we’re always asking for in the gloomier days of remakes and reboots, one that more than deserves our respect and support.