In the realm of feature animation, stop motion isn’t a form that is seen that often, likely because the technique is very time-consuming. However, if done right, a studio can produce some very top-notch results, as proven by Laika. While I have not seen their first feature animation Coraline or their follow-up ParaNorman, I have seen, and was absolutely blown away by, The Boxtrolls, which has some of the best stop-motion work that I had seen up to that point. For this reason, I had been curious about their latest foray into this area of animation, Kubo and the Two Strings, and ended up getting much more out of it than I had anticipated.
Years after washing ashore on a beach, Kubo (Art Parkinson) takes care of his mother (Charlize Theron) in a cave on top of a mountain, while during daylight hours he tells stories to a nearby village by manipulating paper with his guitar. At night Kubo returns to the cave, where his mother tells him stories about his father, however she can only remember the details for so long. One day, the village is having a festival meant to celebrate passed loved ones, which Kubo decides to participate in in hopes of being able to communicate with his father. However, Kubo ends up staying out past sundown, which he is not supposed to do, and ends up being hunted down by a dark power.
Though the story is more that of the hero’s journey, there is enough of a spin on it that it comes off as more unique, helped by the movie’s world and setting. This helps to make the film easier to follow, which isn’t really a bad thing, and there is just enough depth in the narrative to make it believable and its mythos easily picked up by any viewer without having to explain that much. Without spoiling anything, the story, while kept upbeat by a number of humorous moments, also gets surprisingly deep in the way it handles a particular subject, and the final act actually had me in tears once the credits began to roll.
The animation, as come to be expected from Laika, is incredibly top-notch. Of note is the animation of paper, which can be seen folded into origami shapes and brought to life by the magic Kubo possesses in his guitar. The paper is animated so well that their movements feel very natural, especially when it can be seen folding and unfolding at will. Also of note is a scene involving a fight against a giant skeleton creature, as seen in trailers and TV spots, which is reportedly the largest rig ever produced for a stop-motion feature. The characters also interact seamlessly with water and smoke effects, and multi-layered scenery involving the village demonstrates just how much Laika is willing to push the envelope with stop-motion.
The voice acting is very good, especially amongst the lead characters played by Art Parkinson (Kubo), Charlize Theron (Monkey), and Matthew McConaughey (Beetle). While I am not that familiar with much of the actors’ previous works, their performances in this movie are excellent, working well with each of their respective characters’ personalities. The other voice actors, including those of the antagonists, are also done well, and the actors of the villagers (including a cameo from George Takei) do well in making their respective roles sound realistic. The music is also excellent, though some scenes without it work very well, plus the soundtrack includes a perfectly-timed cover of the Beatles song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
If you are a fan of animation, especially in stop-motion, I would highly recommend seeing Kubo and the Two Strings. The animation is some of the best that has ever been produced and, while the story does get kind of deep, there is generally a more light-hearted tone as there are a lot of funny moments to keep it entertaining. It will make you laugh and cry, but most importantly, Kubo is a great movie for anyone looking for solid entertainment and storytelling this summer, animated or otherwise.