Stop motion animation has never looked finer. Laika Entertainment LLC, whose filmography includes 2012’sParaNorman and 2014’s The Boxtrolls , have brought to life yet another solid feature, this time set in ancient Japan.
Kubo and the Two Strings follows the narrative structure of a Japanese legend, complete with proverbs, supernatural plot devices, and other conventions of the form, which works both to the film’s advantage and disadvantage.
The film follows Kubo (Art Parkinson), who is forbidden to go outside after dark for fear of being found by his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who wants to remove the boy’s last remaining eye. Of course Kubo breaks this rule. Because he is negligent of its consequences, it serves as the inciting incident that springs the plot into action.
The animation is perhaps the best stop motion has ever gotten, and in that regard, Kubo is a major accomplishment. The animation is almost as smooth as CG and traditional animation, only betraying its stop motion roots during dialogue scenes, where the animation gets a little choppy. However, this never detracts from the quality of the film; in fact, it gives it a bit of a “stop motion charm,” found in Laika’s other films. The movie even boasts the largest stop motion model ever to be used in a feature.
The story is nothing new; it’s a hero’s quest with a few other plot threads sprinkled in. In order to protect himself from his grandfather, Kubo must assemble three pieces of armor hidden throughout Japan. On the way, he picks up two anthropomorphic companions, Monkey (Charlise Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughy), both brought to life by magic.
Like many legends, Kubo writes the rules of its world as it goes along. It’s not a film strictly bound by any consistent internal logic as far as the supernatural elements go. They mainly exist to progress the plot and deliver impressive visuals, which often have to do with origami. For Example, Kubo has an uncanny ability to bring origami creatures to life, via guitar strums.
That being said, the plot Kubo communicates might seem unconventional to Western audiences. There are specific instances where Western conventions of setup and payoff are ignored in order to deliver a more wholesome experience, subverting audience expectations in a way that either works for you or it doesn’t.
Despite having his family shattered and his eye taken away at a young age, Kubo is not a revenge story, even though it has all the makings of one. The atrocities the Moon King commits (murder and mutilation) are serious offenses that should not be taken lightly, but like July’s The BFG , there is a disconnect between the acts seen on screen and their reality.
Kubo tells a redemption story but fails to realize that some acts are unredeemable.
The most remarkable thing about this film is its animation. I expect to see Kubo nominated at the Oscars for Best Animated Feature, if only for its high production values.