***1/2 out of ****
I’m still amazed that stop-motion animation survives to this day. The frame-by-frame photography of miniature figures has always been impractical, insanely time-consuming and unreal looking at its best. And yet, it’s unlike anything else. It’s special.
Laika Entertainment is probably at the forefront of the handful of studios still practicing this old craft. Ever since Travis Knight (son of Nike founder Phil Knight) took control of the former Will Vinton Studios (responsible for those California Raisins) his Oregon-based studio has slowly built a reputation comparable to the imagination powerhouse, Pixar. In their fourth film, Kubo and the Two Strings, the studio brings sensational imagery to an original fantasy story inspired by ancient Japanese mysticism.
Kubo, a boy living near a seaside village cares for his mostly catatonic mother who has given him a magic shamisen to make object-controlling music for the townsfolk. He puts on dramas starring origami-come-to-life telling of great adventures, which Kubo understands may connect with his own history. The boy is missing an eye, which was stolen by his grandfather, the wrathful Moon King, who was betrayed by his daughter when she fell in love with a mortal man and had a child. Kubo’s mother occasionally speaks to tell him these things and everything he must do to stay hidden.
Naturally, a child’s curiosity leads to a world of trouble when his wicked aunts with demonic powers find him. Kubo is whisked away to go on a quest to find his father’s magical armor with the guidance of a stern but wise monkey and the help of a giant warrior beetle they encounter along the way.
Their odyssey has many perilous obstacles where more secrets are revealed and… I don’t need to go on. No matter how weird my descriptions are, you know this is the stuff an imaginative kid of any age will eat up. Kubo is a wonderful experience with beautifully crafted characters and environments.
Thank goodness composer Dario Marianelli returned for another film with this studio. After suffering the inept orchestrations of Disney’s The Jungle Book, Alice Through the Looking Glass and Pete’s Dragon this year, I was beginning to wonder if Finding Dory was the only family movie with a score that could really pull at my heartstrings. The harmony between this movie’s concepts, visuals, and Marianelli’s emotional soundtrack had me holding back tears near the end.
The only area of criticism I have toward Laika, which seems to be a constant, is with the voice acting –even though it continues to improve. I felt that their first film, Coraline, had a serious void in emotional direction for the normally talented performers they had contributing to its awe-inspiring sights.
Kubo features the voices of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei and Matthew McConaughey - all of whom do quite well, but there are times when their comic-relief interactions feel a little out of character with the mystical tone of the film. I suppose Pixar has set the bar rather high for the emotional potential a voice performance.
Laika has also utilized computer animation and other CGI tricks to build the environment in their films, but the opening sequence is one of many where it seems to dominate the screen. This is forgivable when considering the textural purity of the real characters in the foreground, whose facial expressions are so amazing in their range without any loss of consistency, thanks to the revolution of digital 3D printing.
Snobby nitpicking aside, Kubo and the Two Strings is the innocent escapist relief I’ve been craving all summer with the wholesome touch of a studio that makes family movies, which remember to suggest that knowledge and understanding are more powerful than any weapon when defending oneself against life’s threats.