Decades ago, people marveled at the simplicity and beauty of hand-drawn animation.
In the mid-90s, computer generated images wowed audiences, and proved that a feature-length film could be achieved using only computer programming and some design savvy (“Toy Story”).
Animation continues to push the boundaries of the medium, not just in CGI story-telling, but with recalls to hand-drawn animation, rotoscoping, paper, and more.
And Laika Studios continues to blow the competition out of the water with stop-motion animation.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is a familiar, folktale adventure featuring the titular young boy, Kubo, and his journey to collect the pieces of ancient armor. Only with this armor will he be protected from his evil grandfather and two aunts. Accompanying him on his journey are the protective Monkey and sword-swinging Beetle.
“How Did They Do That?”
The movies that leave the most impact on me aren’t necessarily the most dramatic ones. They can be the ones that leave me with an overwhelming sense of awe, wondering “How the heck did they film that?”
The most recent example I can think of is “Mad Max: Fury Road,” with the incredible stunts that left the audience wincing and bracing in their seats, including me. It was even more wild to learn that almost all the special effects in the film were practical.
But that same sensation of wonderment that filled me during “Mad Max: Fury Road” was just as breathtaking as I felt during “Kubo and the Two Strings.” It’s one of those films where you have to remind yourself that it’s not CGI. At most the CGI was left for the background landscapes, but the characters, props, and settings were all created by hand.
Callback to Adventure
Let’s talk about the story. Like a lot of “Hero’s Journey” movies, this one doesn’t stray too far from the formula, but it’s the enchanting story that’s got me all hyped.
I have a deep appreciation for stories that don’t tell me everything about a world, and you are immediately dropped into the drama between Kubo and his family members. The film begins with his mother fleeing from them in a boat, and using her magic to ensure that she and Kubo get away. You have no idea why she’s running, or how she has magic, but you know that she’s a mother and by God you’re rooting for her to escape.
Kubo’s adventure is a quite literal “hero’s journey”, as he seeks out the three pieces of armor to complete his quest. Each piece of armor is has a final boss attached to it, and Kubo is helped out with a few lucky items (his magical shamisen and origami paper), and his two sidekicks.
But the beauty of the film lies in the aesthetics and creativity of this world. The action is so smooth, and the landscapes are breathtaking. There’s a surprise reveal later in the film that packs an emotional punch, much like Pixar’s “Up”.
Also, just want to point out that the most memorable scene for me was when Kubo first meets his aunts. They were creepy as fuck, as though plucked straight out of a Japanese horror film. I was honest-to-God terrified for Kubo every time they showed up on screen after.
Many critics may say that the villain’s motivations were shallow, but I actually think they were founded. I won’t spoil what happens here, but it’s made clear that the villain is Kubo’s grandfather, and his motive for his actions is actually for family reasons. He feels betrayed by Kubo’s mother, and wants Kubo to join him, and they duke it out as a result. True to the formula, Kubo is torn between joining his family or holding true to his values.
Another small critique I have is George Takei’s role. They gave him a voice credit for a character who had less than five lines, and who had nothing to do with Kubo’s adventure. Kind of a waste of his talent, in my opinion.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is a beautiful stop-motion film that was worth every penny of my luxury, reclining theater seat. I was also sitting beside a group of boys, and they were genuinely enraptured by the entire film. I honestly think that Laika Studios is giving Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks a run for their money.
While it may take two or more years to complete a stop-motion film, I approach it with the attitude of a long-distance relationship: absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I am desperately looking forward to their next work of art, however long it may take.