Director: Travis Knight
Cast: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey
Spoilers Within: Yes
Laika – had they not convinced you already – are becoming an animation studio to reckon with, weaving fantastical stories with a pleasingly mature narrative edge. Ranging from macabre cautionary tale Coraline; the appealingly spooky ParaNorman; and The Boxtrolls, a frustrating but fundamentally loveable story of sewer people. Each of these stories throws their protagonist a curveball, fast-tracking their development from pre-pubescence into teenhood with increasing success. With Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika have composed a story of unspeakable beautiful fantasy, with typically astonishing results from the stop-motion masters.
Before I go ahead with the positive – of which there is much to say – there was an integral problem I had with the first act of Kubo that, from a storytelling angle, harmed the resolution of the mythological fable that their first two releases avoided so well. For the first twenty-or-so minutes, Kubo reveals its secrets and fictions through overly descriptive exposition, sometimes casually (which works) but often clumsily and without cause. This stuttering advancement of the story from the very beginning needn’t have been the case, we could have been naturally introduced to Kubo’s (Art Parkinson) familial backstory in a much more organic way. Instead, for the top-heavy first act, we get untimely sermons such as how we are introduced to a new character, Monkey (Charlize Theron):
“I said your mother is gone. Your village is destroyed, burned to the ground. We landed here in the far lands. Your enemies aren’t far behind. We must search for shelter before your grandfather comes. We need to go now.”
This immediate bombardment comes straight after our hero awakens, force-fed information that didn’t seem entirely in line with the sudden primate companion. This type of expressive, impatient conversation feels far too much in one dose, and rather than peppering their quest with prescient, insightful exchanges that thrust the momentum forward, these one-sided dialogues simply happen to both Kubo and the audience. This isn’t the only case of blunt description: our introductions to multiple characters like Mother, the village, and the villainous Sisters (Rooney Mara) are equally disclosed with a wordy speech instead of shown. The alternative is to rely on the audience’s ability to piece this story together, but this script errs a little too much on the side of caution that hasn’t yet been seen in a Laika production. This isn’t indicative of the entirety of Kubo‘s script, and it does become smarter and more symbolic of the studio, but this only makes the opening narrative all the more jarring.
This is certainly the most (and maybe, only) blatant problem I experienced when watching Kubo and the Two Strings because the rest is absolutely breathtaking. To focus on the credits for a second: at the very end of the flowing, interlacing illustrations there’s a literal curtain pull that shows a meritorious attention to detail and creativity at work with the Hall of Bones skeleton battle. That a sixteen foot tall, fully functioning puppet was created for approximately five minutes of screentime displays a level of staggering workmanship that, while not dying, is becoming a much rarer artform. Laika are following in the footsteps of Ray Harryhausen’s mythical face-off’s and Tim Burton’s fondness for the ghoulish (his production career at least), creating set pieces and tableaus that could have easily been shunned in favour of the less complicated: their addition to and preservation of this unique and dazzling style is something that should be lauded, regardless of opinion on the finished product.
The remainder of the hunt for Kubo’s father’s magic armour throws in some video-game style action spectacle (it’s resemblance to The Legend of Zelda game series is clear, and personally exhilarating) which combines mythological Japanese folklore with motifs of duality that carry the narrative to it’s sweetly realised endpoint. But it’s not just these action-packed, choreographed scenes that delight the most, in fact, it’s the opposite: the quieter moments of introspection at a lake scattered with lanterns, or a half-buried monolith in a snowbound landscape highlights this duality of Kubo’s life (the ‘Two Strings’ of the title has at least five dual meanings) much better than when the script chooses to convey through wordiness.
For technique, skill, vision, sound and style, Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the finest pieces of art in modern cinema: it’s an undeniably rich animated feast with a superly efficient soundtrack, audibly winning vocal performances, and a never-ending vibrancy to its intricate back- and fore-grounds that left me in a constant state of awe: Kubo alone had in excess of 23,000 different prototype faces (with a mind-boggling 48 million different permutations)! Attention to detail on this scale is something that should be loved no matter what, and though ultimately my issues with the first twenty minutes of the script and its deliverance to the narrative did its finale a disservice, Kubo and the Two Strings is still a heart-stoppingly impressive piece of animated beauty. Long live Laika.