For a while I’ve been saying that we are living in a golden age of Western animation, with TV shows like Gravity Falls, BoJack Horseman, Steven Universe and Star vs The Forces of Evil, alongside films like Song of the Sea, Inside Out, The Lego Movie, Zootropolis etc, there is more great animation now than at any other point. One studio that has consistently delivered in this regard has been Laika, a studio that has consistently pushed stop motion animation to its limits. This time, they may have made their finest achievement with Kubo and the Two Strings.
The film takes place in Ancient Japan and follows Kubo, a young boy living in a cave with his mum, who lives in a semi-permanent catatonic state, only having some life in her at night, making a living as a storyteller by working magic through a shamisen to manipulate origami to tell stories of the samurai Hanzo, who is also his father. One night, after a festival to remember the dead, Kubo stays outside after dark and is attacked by his mother’s sisters, sent by his grandfather the Moon King, to steal his eye, one of which was stolen when he was a baby. His mother uses the last of her magic to send Kubo to safety and bring to life a monkey statue to act as a guardian to him whilst he goes on a quest to find his father’s armour, the only things that can defeat the Moon King, with Kubo and Monkey being joined on their journey by Beetle, who claims to be an apprentice of Hanzo, cursed into the form of a beetle. The story is simplistic but it works for the tone of the film, it is a classical story and the film is trying to capture the spirit of a classical adventure and the simplicity works to the films advantage. There are also a number of twists in the film that, whilst fairly obvious, are executed in brilliant ways. The main strength of the film though comes with the characters, all of whom are interesting to watch, have compelling backstories and are just a lot of fun to watch and it’s how interesting the characters are that elevates the stature of the film overall.
The voice acting does a great job at establishing the characters as well. Art Parkinson gives Kubo this great childish spirit that fits the nature of the character at the beginning, along with creating some good humour throughout the film, whilst also doing a good job at showing the growth of the character throughout the film. Charlize Theron as Monkey gives the character a great stern exterior which creates some great deadpan moments, whilst also letting you know that she cares about Kubo and wants to protect him throughout the film. Matthew McConaughey as Beetle gives the film most of its comic relief and he is consistently funny throughout the film, whilst adding more of a dramatic edge to Beetle later on. Rooney Mara gives a very creepy performance as the Sisters which adds to the intimidation factor that the characters possess and makes them very memorable villains. Ralph Fiennes meanwhile gives real weight to his role as the Moon King, making him threatening but in a very calm manner and adds a lot of motivation to the character that makes him such a compelling villain when we’re introduced to him. There are also great supporting turns from George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Brenda Vaccaro which add comic relief and character to the village at the start of the film.
As is to be expected with Laika, the real standout element of the film is the animation. This is easily some of the best stop motion animation I’ve seen. The way the characters move is very fluid which makes all of them very expressive and adds to the charm that they possess, this strength in the motion of the characters means that the film could have been done as a silent film and still achieved the same level of emotional weight. The action scenes are very well done, the speed the characters move and the scale of everything, especially the giant red skeleton is mind boggling to see, just imagining the time and effort it took to build and operate these massive models so that the animation for them matched the animation for the smaller characters makes me respect the animators even more than I already do, mainly due to the little things that so much effort must have gone too such as the movement of hair and clothes. The backgrounds for the film are excellent as well, filled with a lot of little details that help create a great world, aided by the grand scope that they have. The music does a great job at building the atmosphere of the film, mainly with the use of the shamisen, which adds to the character of Kubo, whilst also creating this epic feel for the rest of the film.
Overall, after a very disappointing summer, it’s great to finally see an excellent action film, the fact that it’s stop motion adding to how impressive it is. This is easily some of the best animation ever put to screen, in the service of a great tone and likeable characters, the simplistic story adding to the tonal weight of the film. If it wasn’t already clear from Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, Kubo and the Two Strings confirms Laika to be one of the best animation studios around and I can’t wait to see what they do next.
My Rating: 5/5