LAIKA Studios continues its streak of smart, idiosyncratic, and quirky animated features with the stunning Kubo and the Two Strings. The maker of Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls not only continues to up its game which each successive film, it makes a quantum leap forward with Kubo, accenting its unique story with some CGI flourishes while staying true to its envelope-pushing stop-motion roots.
Set in a fantasy-tinged version of feudal Japan, the movie’s titular character (voiced by Art Parkinson, who played the ill-fated Rickon Stark on Game of Thrones) is a spunky young lad with a gift for storytelling, origami, and shamisen playing. Kubo’s life is less than idyllic, though: A bleak prologue reveals that as an infant he and his mother barely escaped an horrific ordeal with their lives; Kubo’s left eye was taken from him by his own grandfather, and his father was murdered. Eleven years later, he and his mother, who spends most of her time in a catatonic state, live in a remote cave on the coast, and Kubo earns a living as a storyteller in the nearby village.
After a careless moment causes Kubo to re-ignite the vendetta that sundered his family, he embarks on a quest to obtain three magical items needed to defeat his grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) while dodging his spectral aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara) with the aid of a mute origami soldier, a no-nonsense snow monkey (Charlize Theron), and a courageous but absent-minded samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey).
It’s far less twee than it sounds on paper, executed with LAIKA’s signature formula of tenderness, intelligence, and determination to treat its younger viewers as intelligent people rather than condescend to them or water-down the darker elements of the story — which does indeed get grim on a few occasions, one-upping the likes of Disney in the Parent Death Drama department.
Written by by former DreamWorks exec Marc Haimes and ParaNorman director Chris Butler, and directed by LAIKA president and lead animator Travis Knight (his first time behind the camera), the movie steps away from the gothic trappings of its predecessors in exchange for something more earthy and folkloric, but is still creepy at times.
LAIKA has always been about keeping the animation in service to the story, and their stories are basic in structure but driven by complex characters; Kubo is no different. The cast tilts more towards domestic box office insurance than it does Japanese actors, with only George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in small roles. McConaughey provides easy comedic relief with minimal twang, and Fiennes lacquers the menace with a layer of kindliness.
Nelson Lowry’s production design is amazing, as is the ambition and minute detail on display. The amount of detail on the handcrafted sets and puppets is astounding; the evil twin Sisters are like something out of an alternate-universe collaboration between Hideo Nakata (Ringu) and Toshiya Fujita (Lady Snowblood), and the ethereal Moon King has a subtly eerie and majestic presence. The movie wears its visual influences (Akira Kurosawa, Ray Harryhausen, and Hayao Miyazaki, among others) on its proverbial sleeve.
Once the it begins, the movie’s opening line proves to be wise advice: “If you must blink, do it now.”