Studio Laika return with another gorgeous stop-motion animated movie – how does this one fare? Lee and Darren find out.
Storytelling, aside from its uses in teaching and entertainment, also exists as an aide to that ever-permeable human trait; memory. Ever fleeting and impermanent, memories offer our only innate window into the past, and in everything from conversation to film narratives, stories can help us recall and connect with what has already happened in a way that contextualises their happening for our benefit.
Kubo and the Two Strings is an ambitious film that looks, not only to explore the remedying effects of storytelling with regards to loss and grief, but also to celebrate the form itself; flaws, tricks and expectations included. It’s a subversive film, and a smart one, in that it fully commits to its straightforward action adventure narrative yet weaves the subtleties of its message around the actions and statements of its characters and settings. Kubo respects its audience, and uses its themes to compliment its narrative, not piggyback upon it.
As the tale of Kubo progresses, a meta-narrative forms on the difficulties of being the narrator, the use of comic relief and action to keep stories interesting, and the concept that a good ending must be spun for an audience to connect fully with the work. It’s open-ended, with plenty of room for audience interpretation as to what is really happening outside of what we’re being shown and to what extent this really plays into its gorgeous, touching and forgiving ending.
Kubo also happens to have one of those settings that perfectly informs its narrative; a stop-motion animated world, lovingly crafted to give the impression of a world that is brimming with life, lived in rather than lived on. Matched with the incredible score Dario Marianelli, its inevitable something here will grab you and keep you invested.
There was one real drawback of the piece; while they do play neatly into the reveals of the story, we spend very little time getting to really know our side characters, leading to what can be at times a choppy second act as we spend more time diving to the next adventurous location than we do really getting to know who these people who have just joined Kubo are. Our connection to the meta-narrative can make this seem palatable, but if we’re following just the singular adventure narrative, it leads for a lacking experience with these fun characters.
The rest is gold, however, and well worth your time and attention. At your soonest available moment, ensure you see Kubo and the Two Strings. Those with hearts be wary however; this one can make for a surprising strain.
Being a child of the 90s, I loved watching stop motion animation movies, Nightmare before Christmas being a stereotypical cultural touchstone amongst my generation, but also the work of Ray Harryhausen on those rainy Sunday afternoons when Jason and the Argonauts or Clash of the Titans would come on TV seemingly nonstop. And with that comes Laika studios, who have recently been the dominate studio behind stop motion entertainment. Starting with the superb retelling of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, a dark and sinister tale of adventure and family, to my personal favourite Paranorman, a thoughtful tale of being an outsider and the feelings that come with it as well as being a subversion of the traditional zombie horror genre in a fun, clever yet predictable manner.
With such a background I went into this with exceedingly high hopes and was not disappointed. Kubo is a film with an absolutely beautiful aesthetic, the bright colours of the main character and his paper creations juxtapose yet blend well with the darker design of the rest of the cast. The “sisters” being a real stand out in terms of design, melding a more western look with the natural japan style the work goes for, creating a truly eerie and sinister look for our pursuers.
I could talk about this movie for hours, about the subtly of the characters, the solid performance of all the cast and the real heart that comes through each and every scene in it but I only have so much time. I’ve gotten a bit of a reputation as a stony-hearted critic that is harsh (but hopefully fair) to each thing I review.
The story follows a simple path, the traditional hero’s journey, keeping with a solid three character dynamic between our main cast; Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle. While the opening felt a little slow-paced, the first act sets the tone for the rest of the movie, ramping up the action and the dramatic tension but never artificially. The whole story feels rather natural, building on what came before with a clear and believable progression, the action scenes seamlessly meshing with the overall arc of the work, punctuating the story instead of dictating it.
Laika are masters of this. Having interesting and edge-of-the-seat action that never dominates the rest of the work, merely complimenting it. The movie is confident in its message, the fight scenes that could easily wear down the message or overshadow it, instead enhance it and become inextricably linked to it.
The fighting is never the solution or the ending of anything, just the discussion.
While following a very traditional storyline and being honestly predictable on some of its “twists” the writing is spot on, never faltering for a moment, either in dialogue or in scene building. Everything has a chance to be said or to just be heard, sitting quietly in the moment after a revelation or just a cute character scene. They do not subvert the story structure as much as other Laika studio films have but they wouldn’t be themselves without a few tweaks that work nicely into the overall tone.
The tone is probably where this shines the most, somehow managing to juggle charm, whimsy and light laughter with darker undertones of fear and grief. The movie feels honest, talking about all that it has to say about stories and grief with a refreshing authenticity that a lot of family movies lack. This doesn’t rely on its fun characters or silly jokes to carry itself the way several other family pictures do, instead, the authenticity and just sheer relatability of it drives it home in a way that I haven’t felt since Paranorman or Up.
It asks tough questions and doesn’t shy away from them either when it comes time to answer, never taking the easy way out with anything it presents to us as an audience, instead being frank with us about ourselves and the world that the characters inhabit.
Laika studios keep challenging us as an audience I feel; Coraline asked us about ourselves and what love really was, Paranorman asked about the outsider and what fear, hatred, and loneliness can do to each other as well as ourselves, Boxtrolls asked about the nature of family and what it was. Kubo asks about our grief, about the nature of the stories we tell ourselves, how perspective matters but most importantly, it asks us about what we are, what we can be.
Kubo is the kind of hero I want to see more of in cinema and in the real world. He is kind and clever, considerate, honest and fragile; most of all, he is human.
While I may prefer Paranorman on a personal level, at the message and comfort I feel with it, Kubo talks to more people. Speaking of things we will all feel, that even the most stone-hearted like myself, will tear up just a little.
Kubo is what I want people to be. Human.