There are few studios around these days as dedicated to the art and craft of animation as Laika. Founded by Henry Selick, and launched with his brilliant adaptation of Coraline, the studio specializes in stop motion. Their films (ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls) are for kids, but generally have a horror bent, and tend push the young audiences a bit further than most comfy family entertainment. The company also continues to refine and expand the possibilities of stop motion animation in the digital age. Despite their scale and sheen, there’s a tactile quality to the films they make that’s almost impossible to describe. In their latest feature Kubo And The Two Strings, the company throws a little CG into the mix to deliver an astounding feat of animated artistry that is jaw-droppingly beautiful to behold on a big screen. The story isn’t exactly their best so far, but in the midst of the flurry of gorgeous imagery the animators treat audiences to this round, you might not even notice.
As is the Laika way, the movie is about a troubled child. In this case it’s the titular Kubo (Art Parkinson). His father was a great warrior killed in battle, while his mother is essentially catatonic. The boy goes to the local village each day to earn his family’s keep by putting on a music/magic origami show. The only words his mother seems capable of spitting out are warnings to keep away from the village at night to avoid the wrath of the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Obviously Kubo breaks that rule and is quickly attacked by the king’s evil n’ creepy twin daughters (Rooney Mara). In the aftermath, Kubo awakens with a new monkey friend (Charlize Theron), and the two go on a quest to seek out his father’s fabled magic armour and unbreakable sword to defeat the Moon King. Along the way they meet a strange beetle man (Matthew McConaughey). Together the trio build friendships while engaging in a variety of strange battles and challenges.
If the plot sounds strange, that’s because it is. Though based on myth, Kubo And The Two Strings unfolds with a strange dreamlike logic when at it’s best. The film plays like pure cinema, flowing based on the whims of it’s own strange imagery and intoxicating action rather than a forced plot. The weakest parts of the movie are when story and buddy bonding overwhelm the flush of surreal imagery. Sure, the characters are charming with some wonderful movie star vocal performances. However, they feel a little trite when their purposes are revealed, and the old-fashioned “believe in yourself” fairy tale message is a little stale. This is likely Laika’s worst script to date on a pure storytelling perspective. Thankfully, that’s mostly because their standards are so high at that studio, and the gorgeous rush of animation more than makes up for it.
Though this is the first Laika production that doesn’t overtly fall into the horror genre, the studio remains unafraid to freak out kiddies with their projects because secretly young viewers like that sort of thing (see all old fairy tales for more details). There are definitely some creepy moments here that director Travis Knight executes rather fearlessly (apologies for the pun, couldn’t resist). However, the film is primarily an action/adventure lark and that’s where Knight really delivers the goods. He pushes the limits of what stop motion can do then adds a light dusting of CGI to push things even farther.
Kubo And The Two Strings delivers one astounding image and set piece after the next. It’s a glorious big screen experience, and proof that even in an age dominated by CGI sheen, traditional animation can be just as impressive and enthralling. Hopefully Kubo And The Two Strings does well. Laika movies traditionally aren’t exactly major hits; yet make enough for the company’s unique output to continue. Their work is definitely too weird to ever turn into a Pixar-sized hit, but that’s just fine. It’s nice that someone is still focusing on oddball artistry in the world of animation. Kids need to have their imaginations stretched, and those who haven’t given up on this art form need to be reminded that there’s still a place for subversion and experimentation in family friendly animation.