Directed by Travis Knight
Written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler from a story by Shannon Tindle and Marc Haimes
Starring: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Rooney Mara, and Matthew McConaughey
Runtime: 101 minutes
Laika Entertainment is becoming the stop-motion equivalent to Pixar. Their three previous films, Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls have all been wonderful films, filled with imagination and compelling storytelling. Their latest endeavor, Kubo and the Two Strings is no different. Like all of Laika’s films, Kubo is filled with humor while not being afraid to confront serious issues like loss, sorrow and danger.
Kubo (Art Parkinson, best known as Rickon Stark on Game of Thrones) is a small boy in ancient Japan who has to tend to his mother after a boating accident when he was a baby. He lives in a cave with her, but during the day he goes to the village to tell her stories to a crowd. He’s a unique storyteller, because with his shamisen (three-stringed Japanese instrument that sounds a little like a banjo) he can make his origami creations spring to life, enacting his stories. He rushes home just before dark because his mother told him if he is out in the night sky, his grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) will see him and try to take his other eye (his left eye was taken when he was a baby). Kubo thinks his mother is confused by her fantastic tales until one night he is out at nightfall and he learns the truth. His aunts (voiced by Rooney Mara) come to collect his eye and him, setting him on a journey to find three pieces of mystical armor to protect him. With him on his journey is Monkey (Charlize Theron), who was a wooden charm until his mother used the last of her magic to bring her to life to look after him, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) whom they meet up with by accident and who insists Kubo’s father was his samurai master until he was cursed and turned into a beetle.
This sounds like, and looks like, it is based on a traditional Japanese folk tale but remarkably it isn’t. It’s an original story by Shannon Tindle, who is primarily an animation character designer but has also contributed story ideas to Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, and co-screenwriter Marc Haimes, who has spent most of his career as a studio executive and producer. Aiding Haimes in turning his and Tindle’s story into a script was Chris Butler, who also wrote and directed ParaNorman for Laika. Haimes and Butler bring these characters depth and awareness and are not afraid to steer a movie intended for children into some dark territory, such as dealing with never knowing a parent and having to care for another at a young age as well as a child being forced into a life-or-death situation involving estranged family. They make Kubo cautiously confident and joyfully extroverted, relishing his spotlight while he tells his stories. They do an excellent job layering the story, exposing something new at every turn while never letting their script get bogged down in plot or clumsy exposition. They gleefully transport us to a world where magic exists and is enthusiastically accepted, despite its extraordinary uniqueness. Every character is well drawn, vivid and alive and some genuinely terrifying. They balance this darkness with a genuine sense of humor, never taking the easy or vulgar way to a laugh.
First time director Travis Knight knows how to bring these pages to life, having been the lead animator on Laika’s previous films. His color palate sings and the animation is vibrant and alive. His well-placed camera captures all the nuance and beauty of the stop-motion puppets. The movements are smooth and so well done that it’s almost like looking at a computer generated animated film, not puppets. He moves the film along at a great pace, taking time when it is needed for the characters to reflect or even just to relax for a moment. Knight’s comedic timing is excellent too, playing gags just long enough and never overplaying his hand.
Another key component to Kubo is the music by Dario Marianelli, who won an Oscar for his brilliant score for Atonement and also did the score for The Boxtrolls. He utilizes the music of the shamisen throughout the film, incorporating it to underscore its importance as the manifestation of Kubo’s magic. He blends the music, never making it overbearing, making it like it was one of the characters.
Kubo and the Two Strings expertly blends light and dark tones, helping kids understand the gravity of the scenarios without being too scary. Its visuals delight and astound and its story is compelling and alive. Kubo and the Two Strings works on every level and is the best animated film of the year so far.