LAIKA, the stop-motion artists behind ‘Coraline’, ‘ParaNorman’ and ‘The Boxtrolls’ have crafted their fourth, and probably best film in Kubo and the Two Strings.
Set in ancient Japan, Kubo is a young boy who lives with his ill mother inside a massive rock by the sea. Every day he goes down to the little village below, and tells stories to the locals, using a magic shamisen (a small, kind of box-shaped ‘guitar’). When he plays, paper forms into origami characters to perform in his tales. Once such hero is Hanzo – a mighty samurai (who also happens to be Kubo’s long lost father). When Kubo finds out there may be a way to speak to his dead father, he stays out after dark – despite his mother’s warning… And this is where Kubo’s story truly begins. I won’t say much more about the story, for it’s in the telling that such adventure stories that keep their magic; and Kubo has that to spare.
I often marvel at the amount of life animated characters are given by human hands. Sure, the voice actors (here a Star cast that includes the likes of Charlize Theron and Mathew McConaughey) add a great amount of life, but when you’re switching out expressions on a doll to film one frame at a time at 24 frames per second… giving life to something so lifeless feels like it should be impossible. Thankfully then, LAIKA are passionate about their craft and they make it all look incredibly seamless. It’s crazy to think that every single detail, from the wood on the houses to the incidental background props to the strands of wind-blown hair – have all been crafted by hand. Every shot is meticulous in its composition and eye-popping in spectacle. Kubo is simply astonishing to watch unfold, whether it’s the towering colossal waves of it’s opening, or the golden sunset light that blankets a stone graveyard, LAIKA have raised their own visual bar here. In fact, the biggest compliment I can give the film, is that the “ooh and aah” factor of seeing a stop-motion animated film on the big screen (and this epic DEMANDS to be seen that way) falls away very quickly, once the story and characters hook you. And the characters are pretty great. Maybe a surly monkey and a cocky beetle don’t sound like an iconic duo on paper, but well, this is the kind of movie where paper can burst into a flock of birds… so you know, expect the unexpected.
Kubo is simply astonishing to watch unfold
When Joseph Campbell recognised something he called the ‘monomyth’, he discovered that mythology was something mankind used over and over to tell the same kind of story. Stories that were also metaphorical morality tales. These days our modern myths consist of Jedi Knights (still!) and Gods of the sky. Kubo takes that familiar clay, molds it and manipulates it – frame by pain-staking frame – and crafts something truly special. Tragedy, sorrow and loss. Action and humour. Charm, beauty and wonder. There’s a steady hand for this hand-crafted saga, and despite their classical approach to its heroes, the writers give us more than enough surprises along the way. But more than any of this, there’s an understanding of the value of heroes, and what we love about the telling of their journey.
Unlike other animated films aimed more at children, there’s a sense of maturity about Kubo that immediately assumes intelligence of its audience. Like the ‘Star Wars’ saga before it, this is a story for all ages. So look out, Pixar, there’s a new kid in town. And when Kubo takes up his shamisen, neither child nor adult will be able to resist the power of his magic. Such tales may be familiar to us by now, but only a master storyteller can hold his audience’s attention right up until the end.
Kubo is in cinemas now, but not for long. Don’t miss his tale. It’s one that deserves to be heard again and again.
Sash Nixon is an award-winning filmmaker who lives in HamilTron, where he also writes screenplays, acts and occasionally cosplays. He makes a mean noodle omelette, and is a Level 15th Dan black belt in the art of Colouring (pencil grade).