They may not have the brand recognition of Disney, Pixar, or even DreamWorks Animation, but with just four films under their belt, the folks at Laika are responsible for some of the best examples of animation to come from an American studio in the last decade. Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls are all thoroughly enjoyable, original stories with incredible examples of stop-motion animation. Somehow, they have managed to hit a new high peak with their latest film, Kubo and the Two Strings.
At the center of this story is Kubo (Art Parkinson), a boy with one eye who uses a powerful musical instrument to help craft tales about epic fights, complete with puppets created from origami. At nights, he returns to his mother, who alternates between loving affection and unbreakable stillness. The two are alone; Kubo’s father perished years earlier in an attempt to save Kubo’s other eye from the Moon King, his grandfather. But when Kubo’s grandfather and aunts discover where he is one night, they pick up a relentless pursuit of the boy, and he has to run. Accompanying Kubo on his journey is a monkey doll brought to life (Charlize Theron) and a giant beetle who was once a warrior (Matthew McConaughey). And that’s just the beginning of Kubo’s surreal, epic journey.
First, let’s talk about the animation. As the narrating voice of Kubo says at the beginning of the film, “If you must blink, do it now.” Laika has, among other things, proven themselves to be at the forefront of stop-motion animation with their previous films, but none of their previous works can prepare you for the magic of Kubo and the Two Strings. With the frequent use of origami creations, or a fight sequence set underwater amidst a sea of eyeballs, or a chilling standoff between Kubo and a giant serpent-shaped spirit, it’s easy to forget that each and every one of these scenes is the result of countless hours of careful manipulation on the part of the animators. There’s a fluidity to the motions here that is almost completely seamless. It’s, in a word, stunning.
If technical prowess was all the film offered, it would still be worth watching. But Kubo and the Two Strings uses the techniques to create a narrative that blends folk tales, Hollywood creatures and a traditional story about a hero’s journey all into one concise but powerful story. There’s undeniably plenty of action, but with the inclusion of McConaughey and (surprisingly) Theron, there’s also a surprising (and welcome) amount of humor. The story isn’t revolutionary in the way we’ve come to expect from, say, Pixar, but that’s not a bad thing. When told well and with conviction, even a classic story can feel like one worth hearing (or watching) again.
At the rate Laika is working, it’s understandable why it takes a few years to get a new film from the studio. In fact, their pace is strong, and as much as I want more Laika films, I want them to put this amount of care into all their productions. It’s worth waiting for a few years. If they can keep this up – and considering the four films in their canon, I don’t see why they couldn’t – Laika will most likely cement their status as one of the best producers of animation in film history. No joke.