“If you must blink, do it now.” These are the first words heard in Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika Entertainment’s latest 3D stop motion sequel. These words basically lend themselves to the visual artistry on the screen. Laika has put a lot of work and love into every shot. Each movement, from the characters, to the waves, to the precipitation, to the vegetation is not something you want to miss. The movie is beautiful to look at, but of course there is more to it than that. This might be Laika at the top of their game.
Laika Entertainment specializes in stop motion films. The process of stop motion is a lot of work. The animators make models and objects and have to move them for every frame they want those things to move. The film standard for frame rate is 24 frames per second, so you would have to move the object, take the frame, move the object again, and take another frame. That’s only two frames right there in my last sentence. I want to emphasize how much work goes into this process and anyone who chooses to use this technique should be commended. Of course there is a lot that goes into any kind of animation that some people might be unaware of. Laika has made four films using this technique: Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and Kubo. I recommend Coraline and ParaNorman; I haven’t seen The Boxtrolls yet.
Kubo and the Two Strings tells the story of Kubo (Art Parkinson), a young boy who has lost his left eye to his grandfather (Ralph Fiennes) when he was a baby. Kubo lives with his mother, who is ill and still bares the scars she received while protecting baby Kubo and escaping to safety. Kubo and mother live in a cave away from the local village, where Kubo uses the magic from his shamisen to create origami figures that act out the stories he tells to the local villagers. Kubo has to be back home after sunset, or his aunts and grandfather will appear at night to try to take his other eye. Kubo’s mother tells him stories about his father and how he fought against Kubo’s grandfather to protect Kubo.
Kubo’s mother’s consciousness is fleeting unfortunately, and other times we see her in a somewhat catatonic state. In fact, after the opening sequence, this is how we find her in the next scene which is a tender and tragic few minutes where we see a young boy feed and take care of his mother before he heads to town. This scene has barely any dialogue, with the movements, facial expressions, and music carrying the load and it is effective. Usually with American animated films with children as a part of the audience, having a scene that is practically free of dialogue is rarely done and having such a somber scene at the beginning of film is not done that much as well. One day, Kubo stays out too late and his aunts (Rooney Mara) come for him and destroy the village. Kubo’s mother dies fighting her sisters off while using her magic to send Kubo off and using the last of it to bring Kubo’s monkey charm to life.
Kubo awakens in a snow covered land to find that his monkey charm is a sentient being and is there to protect him. Kubo must find his father’s sword and armor in order for him to defeat his grandfather. As Kubo and Monkey began their journey, they meet Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a beetle/man hybrid who was a samurai that knew Kubo’s father. Kubo, along with Monkey and Beetle, journey to search for his father’s armor with his aunts in pursuit.
There is something I want touch upon in this review dealing with the animation industry as a whole. There is a misconception that all animation is for children (there are other misconceptions as well but maybe I will have a way to discuss that somewhere and someway in the future). This is called the animation age ghetto and it is thankfully waning, in some parts of the world at least. The animation age ghetto is how you get parents taking children to Sausage Party. While I’ll admit that I don’t know of any particular cases of parents taking their children to animated films that are not particularly family/children friendly, I do know that this is an issue. Films such as Sausage Party, films done by Ralph Bakshi, Don Bluth, Don Hertzfeldt, and Laika among others have helped break down the animation age ghetto. Anime (Japanese animated works) that have made it to other parts of the world, along with television shows such as Family Guy, South Park, BoJack Horseman, Rick and Morty (anything on Adult Swim) are for teens and adults.
Some animated works of film and television that are marketed to children are not afraid to give their audiences intelligent, deep, and meaningful stories without dumbing them down. And these works enjoy viewers and fans from across age demographics. Works such as the Avatar Series (The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra), Steven Universe, Adventure Time, and Gravity Falls accomplish this. Kubo and the Two Strings also accomplishes this. Yes, there is a talking monkey, yes there is comedy, yes Matthew McConaughey says funny things, but this is also a film that might have slow pacing and people get hurt. There are responsibilities and consequences. Also, there is heart and spirituality, especially concerning the dead.
Of course the film is bathed in Japanese essence. The setting, costumes, the story, the music, the way film flows all contribute to this sensibility and the elements of the film do this quite well. The music by Dario Marianelli uses Japanese instruments. Also, the score is lovely. Kubo uses music through his shamisen to make paper come to life. There is even a cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” done by Regina Spektor with some Japanese instrumentation that plays during the credits which I enjoyed. Also, there is some amazing 2D illustrations and a little behind the scenes clip during the credits for those who stay until the credits are done.
I highly recommend Kubo and the Two Strings for those who enjoy animation, whether it be children, families, or adults. I almost forgot to mention that I saw it in 3D, which was spectacular, and I recommend that to those who can shell out the extra cash. All the ingredients come together to create one of the best films of I have seen this year, regardless of medium. This is said with the knowledge that this year has had other exceptional standouts in feature animation. I hope more people will find out about Kubo and appreciate the work that Laika Entertainment has done on this film. I look forward to the DVD with all the extra features and also the next thing that Laika has planned