“If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see and hear, no matter how unusual it may seem. If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.”
So begins the fourth animated feature from the prolific stop-motion animation house Laika; easily their most ambitious effort to date. On the surface this epigraph by the titular hero is taken as an invitation—a Barnum and Bailey-esque call for attention to a story that must be seen to be believed. But it is not until the end of Kubo and the Two Strings that we decipher its other purpose: to remind us why we tell stories in the first place. The film succeeds as an adventurous and striking epic but also as a meditation on memories—on how love and loved ones are preserved and passed on through generations. As a result, it stands among the best animated films of the year.
Following a perilous opening set-piece, we meet Kubo (Art Parkinson) and his mother in a seaside cave high above the Japanese village the boy visits each day. Magic runs in Kubo’s family (though his father’s past is a mystery), and he uses his gifts to bring origami creations to life as a part of the enthralling stories he tells whilst strumming his mother’s shamisen. His tales bring the bustling town to a standstill as onlookers eagerly await the conclusion of the nefarious predicaments Kubo has devised. A stern mandate from his mother to be home by sunset prevents Kubo from ever finishing one of his narratives, but it does not take long to see the consequences of staying out after dark. Kubo’s grandfather (Ralph Fiennes) and twin aunts (Rooney Mara) have decidedly evil plans in store for him (he is missing an eye thanks to them), and it is this conflict that propels Kubo on a quest to stop them once and for all. Along his travels he gains companions in the form of the fiercely protective Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a courageous warrior trapped in an insect-humanoid body. Together they seek to collect the pieces of a fabled suit of armor capable of defeating Kubo’s foes.
Laika is uniquely equipped to tackle the scope and grandeur of the classic samurai genre. By supplementing its trademark stop-motion animation with computer generated effects, the film manages to suggest a more life-like and kinetic feel. But this should not overshadow the formal considerations by director and Laika CEO Travis Knight. A number of sequences draw comparisons to David Lean, and the transitions from shot to shot—often including complex camera movements while the subjects in the frame are also in motion—add a fluidity to the editing that is not often found in stop-motion. In one moment our wayfaring hero and his companions are sharing a tender moment around a small fire and the next they are crossing a vast frozen plain, a dense bamboo forest, or a foreboding lake.
These are only a few of the many places Kubo visits along his journey, and the sets are constructed with a remarkable amount of imagination and precision. Similar to its prior efforts—Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls—Laika’s attention to detail cannot be oversold. Where these previous films featured a more Gothic aesthetic, Kubo is categorically more geometric, resembling Japanese woodblock prints. Its world manages to be ornate yet also tactile, a place so delicate that it could be swept away in an instant though never truly fade from your memory, lending to an overarching sense of tranquil melancholy. But the details do not stop with the art direction. In an early scene when Kubo is feeding his mother, an errant grain of rice ends up on the side of her mouth, and he proceeds to collect it and feed it to her. It is the kind of moment that is glossed over in a live-action film, but it is a detail that makes all the difference in bringing animation to life.
And in a few instances—namely the action set pieces—the animation becomes larger-than-life. A standout sequence comes near the onset of the trio’s adventure when the only thing between them and a coveted, mythical sword is a giant skeleton-like monster. The nod to the work of Ray Harryhausen is fairly overt to the adults in the audience, but even 53 years after the release of Jason and the Argonauts, the device continues to thrill young audiences and introduce them to the hallmarks of the medium.
Speaking of kids and their modern movie-watching preferences, the film has received criticism for outwardly appearing too much like a “fetch quest,” a term more commonly heard in the critical discourse of video games; the argument being that the search for three legendary pieces of armor is an arbitrary way to drive the plot forward. However, at no point does the pacing or narrative progression hinge on the completion of this task. Instead, in a refreshing change relative to other summer animated films, Kubo and the Two Strings slows down where other films would race ahead, and it becomes clear that the film is much more interested in how its main characters grow with each other and with the audience. For it is here where the most important treasures of the film can be uncovered.
In another quiet moment that pays off later in the film, we observe Kubo’s mother telling her son about the conquests of his father, a brave samurai. However, upon reaching her story’s climax, she is unable to recall what resolution or end, if any, came of her husband. It is no accident that the adult figures have difficulty remembering the past. They serve to remind us that even the tallest of tales begin somewhere and with someone, and in the case of Kubo’s mother, it is a double edged sword, both a means to commemorate the love of her life and a symptom of her grief over an indescribable loss. It is in moments like these that we learn stories have the power to inspire our children, make sense of our misfortunes, and honor those who are no longer with us.
In a society where there has never been more technology to help us preserve the past, individually we are forgetting more. We leave digital footprints every day, and our social media pages are now referred to as “timelines.” Even when we use this technology to better connect with one another, we are confronted with a paradox: if all our history can be saved and archived, what do we truly remember, and how does one leave a legacy behind when everyone else’s is so easily visible? This kind of question seems to have renewed our collective interest in what it means to make an impact, even appearing in our popular culture in countless ways. Therefore, perhaps it is fitting that a film set in ancient Japan—presented in a scarcely-utilized form of animation—manages to deliver a rather profound response, one that mirrors the Broadway smash hit Hamilton with the idea that it is not the accomplishments nor the accolades that define your life, but instead who is left behind to tell your story. What is lost is only what is kept, and what lasts forever is what is shared.
The credits roll to a cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” an appropriate choice to accompany the arresting final shot of the film. George Harrison’s song certainly evokes a mood marked by loss and death, but under the surface it is also hopeful, not unlike the ending of Kubo and the Two Strings. Harrison often referred to the Eastern theory of relativism when discussing his inspiration for the song, pointing to the notion that everything happens for a reason. This can also be applied to Kubo with the message that we suffer loss because we are capable of emerging from it. Consider Harrison’s lyrics, “I look at the world and I notice it’s turning/While my guitar gently weeps. With every mistake we must surely be learning/Still my guitar gently weeps.” One could translate them as cynical or optimistic, but the beauty is that they are both present, just as our joy is often mixed with our pain. For an animated feature to not simply scratch the surface but dive head-first into these topics is a bold maneuver, but that is exactly what Laika has done with Kubo and the Two Strings—a stunning visual achievement and a parable of legacy, grief, and ultimately healing.