‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ Is a Stop-Motion Fable That Will Expand Your Imagination

Laika draws on Kurosawa and Harryhausen to create a deeply felt, the visually dazzling hero’s tale, Kubo and the Two Strings.

Kubo and the Two Strings
Travis Knight
Focus Features
19 August 2016

One of the several jaw-dropping scenes in stop-motion marvel Kubo and the Two Strings sees a gigantic, re-animated, blood-red skeleton swing its tree-like limbs at the titular, one-eyed adventurer and his two companions — a talking monkey and a samurai beetle — as they tumble and leap to evade the creature’s grasp. It’s one of those unforgettable movie moments that’s marginally dangerous in that you forget to breathe while watching it. The atmosphere, the spectacle, the designs — everything works in harmony, and it’s overwhelmingly impressive.

The moviemakers at Laika continue to vindicate those who believe that the classical aesthetic philosophies of George Méliès and Carl Theodor Dreyer are still viable in today’s CGI-dominated cinemasphere. (Astonishingly, the skeleton sequence took eighteen months to animate. Only the most passionate artists could pull something like that off.) Off-kilter, dark gems like Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012) and The Boxtrolls (2014) have made the Oregon-based independent studio the modern-day standard-bearer for hand-crafted, stop-motion animation, and with Kubo and the Two Strings they raise the bar yet again. It’s their most ambitious feature yet: a sprawling, Kurosawa/Harryhausen-inspired fable about, well, the power of fables.

While Kubo and the Two Strings isn’t as stylistically morbid as Coraline, it does tread dark thematic territory, with the entire story revolving around death and the way grief can both ravage the mind and empower the soul. It’s a sign of faith, really, that the studio chose to make an all-ages movie that trusts children will be able to absorb such rich, challenging material, all while enjoying the more palatable action-adventure elements.

Via storybook-style prologue, we meet Kubo (Game of Thrones’ Art Parkinson), an extraordinary, one-eyed boy living in a fantastical interpretation of feudal Japan. In a village at the foot of a mountain where he and his mom live (they’re contented cave-dwellers), he makes a living as a busker or sorts, telling samurai stories in the street as he provides his own background music via his trusty shamisen (a Japanese, banjo-like instrument). He draws a big crowd, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that his shamisen-playing can bring pieces of paper to life, origami-style, taking the shape of any creature his imagination can conjure up.

The only catch to his samurai stories is that he never finishes them. Turns out, Hanzo, the mighty hero from the stories, was Kubo’s father, and the stories have been passed down from his mother, who can’t remember how any of them end due to an old head-trauma accident at sea. Kubo only knows his father from the stories, and when two evil apparitions wearing Noh masks (both voiced by Rooney Mara) claim to be his aunts and bring death to his doorstep, he embarks on a journey to uncover the truth behind his bloodline.

Kubo picks up two close companions on his odyssey: the grumpy, combat-ready Monkey (a tender but tough Charlize Theron) and the avuncular, amnesiac Beetle (Matthew McConaughey, comfortably in goofball mode) who purports to have been a pupil of Kubo’s father. Together, they quest after the three pieces of mystical armor Hanzo used in the stories, exchanging some entertaining chatter in between slaying grotesque guardians on their way to confronting the Moon King, the ultimate big-bad. Kubo’s heroic quest at first appears to be typical fare, but some unexpected (and unexpectedly poignant) narrative swerves keep you on your toes and add richness to the overarching themes (finally discovering meaning behind the “two strings” from the title is a deeply moving revelation).

If there’s an issue with the story, it’s that the final battle feels a little too wordy. We’ve seen this in many an action movie before: The hero and villain lock horns in a deadly standoff that’s sure to end with one of them meeting their maker, and yet, they’ve got all the time in the world to talk philosophy and quite plainly lay out the moral of the story. It’s distracting and defies logic a little too much, but truthfully, this is the movie’s sole brush with convention. From every other angle, Kubo and the Two Strings is a bona fide one-of-a-kind experience.

Laika’s character and set designs have to be seen to be believed. Some of the best moments of a stop-motion movie are when you see a fingerprint or imperfection in one of the character models and take a moment to appreciate the countless hours of work the animators put into the damn thing. It’s humbling. There’s staggering attention to detail, but what’s most impressive is that each flourish — from Monkey’s thick fur fluttering in the wind to the way Kubo fusses with his hair to cover up his missing eye — evokes some sort of emotion. The sound design is just as notable as the imagery, with swirling sound effects that make the film feel more three-dimensional than any glasses could, and a driving score that gives way to silence at the right moments, allowing the richness and rhythm of the visuals to seep into the cracks.

Sitting in the director’s chair is Laika president and CEO Travis Knight, who’s confessed that the story is close to his heart, as it’s inspired by his own childhood. The film does feel startlingly personal, and much like the great Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Pixar’s Up (2009) before it, Kubo and the Two Strings treats its audience with utmost respect, taking them on an exhilarating adventure while shining a light into the darkest corners of the human experience.

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Read our interview with director Travis Knight and producer Arianne Sutner here.

RATING 8 / 10
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