Well, don’t blink, because as the dog days are set upon us, Kubo and the Two Strings is here to breathe some life into an otherwise grim season.
The first attention grabbing thing about Kubo is how attention averse it seems. There are some big names on voice talent—Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Finnes—and some medium sized names like Art Parkinson, aka Game of Thrones’ Rickon Stark who, yeah, I had no idea he could talk either. But outside of a few commercials and a dab of web content, I’d describe it as a bit of an unheralded release. The fourth feature length film from Laika Entertainment (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls), and the first directed by Travis Knight, CEO of Laika, the film seems to be wagering on Lego Movie style word-of-mouth propulsion. A good movie will certainly find its way, and fortunately for Knight and company, Kubo is excellent.
Rendered in Laika’s signature stop motion style, Kubo’s visual identity is both aesthetic and narrative adhesive. Reaching beyond mere animated splendor, the look is a tactile underpinning to their world. To describe it here would be criminal, but I encourage you to watch it unfold on the biggest screen possible. Made for a modest $60 million (Finding Dory had a reported budget of $200 million), it’s the cleverness of the animation, the ingenuity to use visuals as story building element, that really lifts the film.
Another of the unexpected merits of Kubo’s style is its simplicity. It's not simple per se, but rather clean and elegant. Our journey moves between snow, desert, forest, and open water, but instead of a field of view cluttered with animated pyrotechnics, Kubo relies on a kind of quiet, absorbing clarity.
Inside the animation’s armor is a much more intriguing tale about telling stories. Where I wouldn’t claim that the script scales the heights of originality, but it is supremely confident in offering you a story you know. So much of what will occur in the film is telegraphed early on, however, it’s not a defensive justification or cheap device—it’s an earnest proclamation: this is a hero’s journey. Where you’re familiar with the structure—and where you’ve definitely heard the villain's rhetoric before--Kubo faintly dips beneath the skin and plays with headier notions, like what is a story? Why is story? Who is story? This isn’t an overbearing thread, but you feel it from the moment we meet Kubo, a little boy with shamisen in hand, a storyteller who can’t finish his own story.
Where these loftier concepts are manifest, Kubo and the Two Strings is still, at its core, an epic adventure. Breathless action pieces, haunting villains, well appointed sidekicks, and a quest grand enough to warrant Kubo’s goodness. Where there is undoubtedly a strong melancholy streak present, a deeply felt excitement and sincere joy are Kubo’s enduring feelings.
And where all the big ideas introduced aren’t fully illuminated, there is something wonderful about a film so assured in its familiar story to ask, what is your story, and who are you without it?