Laika does not conform to the trends of modern animation. Their films use a mix of computers and painstaking stop-motion techniques. Their characters are hardly cute, at least not in the Pixar sense, and their stories draw from painful childhood feelings: alienation, rejection, and loneliness. But because their films are always visual delights – with strong characters – they arrive with wisdom, too.
Laika’s latest Kubo and the Two Strings is no different. Director Travis Knight sets his film in an exaggerated, austere vision of feudal Japan, one where magic coexists with agrarian life. The narrative is stripped to its essentials, in terms of ambition and heroes/villains, so Knight uses that simplicity to his advantage.
Kubo (Art Parkinson) lives modestly. At around age ten, he supports himself and his mother as a storyteller; he always attracts a crowd because he uses a magic string instrument to reanimate origami warriors. Kubo’s mother is a tragic figure – she is either completely lucid, or catatonic – and fragments of memory are Kubo’s only window to his past.
One day Kubo attracts the attention of his sinister aunts (Rooney Mara), who attack Kubo’s mother and the nearby town. Kubo barely survives, and discovers a strange protector: a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) who explains that Kubo must mirror the path of his favorite story. Along with the help of an absent-minded Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo encounters terrifying monsters and finally learns his true legacy.
Screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler take their time with Kubo’s everyday life. The first act teases the possibility of adventure, focusing mostly on the sad routine that defines Kubo’s life. Younger viewers may be restless, and yet these moments are necessary so we ache and thrill alongside each new discovery. The imagery is striking and bizarre: Knight borrows from Japanese folk art and the angles of silent German Expressionism in order to create landscapes that are welcoming, impossible, and dangerous.
Kubo and the Two Strings is also a technical marvel. I do not know how the animators blend stop-motion and computers, but the effect is totally immersive. I am certain, however, that the main characters are all stop-motion creations, which means they move with buoyancy and heft. There is also a tactile element to the animation that we do not normally see in CGI: feathers, fur, and trees move with heightened realism. In the climax, Kubo stands up to a figure that is significantly bigger than himself, and there is terror to it because Knight forces a sense of scale. Animation typically gives a chance to indulge their imaginations, except the physical constraints of stop-motion mean Laika’s animators find innovation through other means.
Technical achievements notwithstanding, Knight and his screenwriters also recognize the need for typical cartoon tropes. The voice acting in Kubo is top-notch, as if Parkinson, Theron, and McConaughey developed an easy rapport before recording their roles. There is always a push-pull of whether Beetle and Monkey should worry or let their guard down, and this dynamic leads to moments comedy, as well as drama. The voice acting also means the action sequences, including sword battles and battles of will, have stakes to them.
The final minutes are moving because there is a satisfying end for Kubo’s quest, and his nagging need for deeper contentment. I can think of no higher compliment for Kubo and Two Strings other than it conflates emotional catharsis along with the dreamlike logic of fairy tales. If Kubo has the depth of a fairy tale, including the ones that have been around for centuries, then it may even share their longevity.