It’s difficult to not want to read a little autobiography into Kubo and the Two Strings. The film – about a boy, Kubo, who has magical powers that manifest as autonomous origami shaped by the stories he tells – is brought to us by LAIKA, the studio known for their stop-motion animation. And just as this is Kubo’s first adventure, this movie is director Travis Knight’s debut; and he’s clearly picked up a few things from legends like Henry Selick, who’ve directed the studio’s previous pictures, though they are far from his only influence.
Kubo is broadly a story about storytelling, whose stories get told, and who tells those stories. As Lin-Manuel Miranda might put it, it’s about who lives, who dies, who tells your story? Its eastern inspired aesthetic isn’t just set dressing; Kubo’s story is heavily influenced by eastern ideas of death and transcendence, and the stop-motion puppetry even taps into ideas of wabi-sabi – the Japanese aesthetic of time-weathered objects.
When we’re introduced to him, Kubo (Art Parkinson) – who is missing an eye – spends his morning caring for his near-catatonic mother, and his days entertaining the villagers of a nearby town with magically and musically enhanced stories of the samurai, Hanzo, who searched for three pieces of magical armor, and faced the evil Moon King and his army of dark creatures. The stories come alive on screen through Kubo’s origami magic which he channels though playing his shamisen, a traditional Japanese three-stringed guitar. In these scenes, the film’s audience and Kubo’s audience are one in the same, amazed and enraptured by the intricacy of the paper’s dance to Kubo’s jamming shamisen.
But he’s never able to finish his stories, as he must be home by nightfall, where his now active mother tells him more stories of Hanzo – who is also Kubo’s father – who sacrificed himself protecting baby Kubo and his mother from the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who still hunts Kubo for his remaining eye.
But on the night of the Obon festival, a traditional Buddhist festival where people summon the spirits of their ancestors, Kubo can’t resist staying out late for the chance to talk to the father he never knew, the legendary hero who gave his life for his son’s. Surely enough, as suddenly as the sun sets, Kubo is set-upon by the twin daughters of the Moon King (both played by Rooney Mara), seeking to take Kubo to their father. Kubo’s mother intervenes, sacrificing herself, and setting Kubo off on a quest to find the same magic armor his father sought so that he can protect himself without her.
Waking up the next morning in the middle of a blizzard, Kubo makes the acquaintance of Monkey (Charlize Theron) – formally a small charm Kubo’s mother gave him – who helps him on his quest; and the pair later meet Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) – a samurai who has been metamorphosed, and also lost his memory.
The movie has awe-inspiring set-pieces, which are more amazing whenever you consider the effort that must have gone into the stop-motion behind every movement, from a sword slash to the rustle of cloth. The movie boasts the largest stop-motion puppet ever (a mid-credits scene shows us that just the top half is around 8 feet tall). And as amazing as these action sequences are, another involves a sword fight on a sinking ship made entirely of leaves, the time between them is just as magical. Every character is so emotive, every movement so fluid, that you swear the animators must have cheated somewhere. 99% of most CG movies aren’t as fluidly animated as Kubo, and there are real life actors less emotive than these puppets. It’s almost unfathomable how much detail has been put into this movie, every hair blown by a breeze, and tons of background animations that most people won’t pay attention to. There are crowds of “extras” in the movie that are just as lovingly animated as the main cast. There’s a scene involving sliced fish that behaves so realistically, it made me hungry for sushi. Kubo is a film where effort and execution are inexorably linked, where tremendous effort has resulted in immaculate execution.
The same can be said of the voice cast. While you can argue the semiotics of an all-white cast playing eastern inspired characters and tropes, and that is an important conversation to have, I wouldn’t want it to take away from the amazing performances this cast did give. Parkinson’s Kubo is one of the most believable child protagonists in a film this year. He’s plucky, and a little naïve, but is also deeply affected by the loss of both his parents. Theron’s Monkey invites comparisons to Furiosa (a badass warrior leading a male protagonist on a journey), and also quickly becomes team mom. McConaughey’s Beetle, who is mostly comic relief, is a blustery samurai who feels the heavy loss of his memories. Mara plays the Moon Twins with a perfectly hollow creepiness; and Ralph Fiennes takes another turn as, essentially, Voldemort.
It is hard to oversell how much of a spectacle Kubo and the Two Strings is; it’s easily the most visually impressive movie this year, and is one of the most stunning examples of animation, stop-motion or otherwise, committed to screen ever. One of the virtues of stop-motion – one tapped into narratively as well as directorially – is frugality, as minute of animation can take hours of work. It doesn’t feel like any time was wasted in front of, or behind the camera for Kubo. More than just spectacle, every visual flourish of Kubo is given immense purpose and weight.
Kubo and the Two Strings is, hands-down, the most impressive film I’ve seen all year; a masterclass in style and substance that should not be missed.