Equal parts unique and familiar, vibrant and dark, immersive and whimsical, Kubo and the Two Strings stands out, not only as the best stop-motion animated film in recent memory, but as among the best animated films in genre history. With their fourth Claymation project, Laika Entertainment (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls) and CEO/Director Travis Knight push the boundaries of stop-motion, propelling a beautifully textured environment of stunning color and visual magic. Combining this ocular experience with a heart-felt story unafraid of digging deep and a powerful cinematic soundtrack, Knight and his team deliver a rare piece of art in an industry saturated with the formulaic.
Often times the stories within animated films, especially stop-motion movies, feel secondary to the candy store of visual effects on display, but not here. The story stands on its own, pleasantly peculiar; philosophical while remaining earnest. While not too heavy for children, the tone distinguishes itself from Disney and Pixar films, movies which exist in a cartoon universe where injuries are impermanent. When characters feel pain, it can be brutal and consequential, and yet never gratuitous. There exists a depth and darkness, subject matter dealing with death and loss, dementia and depression, but these tough pills become easy to swallow, balanced superbly with moments of laughter and enchantment.
The Claymation boggles the mind. The textures pop gorgeously and leave the audience feeling as if they could physically touch the origami construction paper, the bark on each tree. Though there are dark, chilling scenes of scary monsters from the underworld, Kubo differentiates itself from former stop-motion heavy hitters (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline) with its uniquely vibrant colors and its vast, entrancing world. The soundtrack, by Dario Marianelli (The Boxtrolls, Anna Karenina), intertwines hypnotically with the story and the visuals. Regina Spektor’s clever cover of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, fittingly concludes the epic journey. Laika entertainment truly crafts a sum greater than each individual building block and builds themselves a towering skyscraper of a movie.
The cast contains some big names including: Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road), Ralph Fiennes (Spectre), Rooney Mara (Lion), and Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar). The star power is welcome and each performs admirably, but Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones) shines brightly in the title role of Kubo and the veterans may be easily forgotten. As Kubo wails on his magical shamisen (think Japanese guitar), Parkinson lends his voice expertly to the heart of the film, the tradition of the bard: oral story-telling.
The epic journey concludes with a bitter-sweet taste, but a substantial moral. Memories carry power. In memories, and in stories, those who’ve been lost live on. Death should not be feared, but instead kept in perspective.
Few improvements to be made to this movie cross my mind. Kubo and the Two Strings solidifies itself in my library as a true highlight, a rare treasure. Watch this one with the whole family. It will entertain as well as inform and inspire those of any age. Make sure to stick around through the beautiful animation of the credit sequence where there may be a brief, but intriguing behind-the-scenes look at the labor of love that is stop-motion animation, wholly worth the time.
Favorite Line: “Do I have eyelids?”