*** (3 stars)
d – Travis Knight
w – Marc Haimes, Chris Butler, Shannon Tindle
ph – Frank Passingham
pd – Nelson Lowry
m – Dario Marianelli
ed – Christopher Murrie
cos – Deborah Cook
p – Travis Knight, Arianne Sutner
Cast: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Brenda Vaccaro, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, George Takei
Stories, like any art form, are a way for people to express their inner most feelings with one another. Therefore, their importance is irrefutable. It’s their fragility that can sometimes be cause for concern. Stories, depending on who is telling them, can inspire both love and hate; truth and lies; illusion and insight.
The effectiveness of stories is why the art of cinema circumnavigated itself towards narrative early on in its development, and is of course now its dominating genus. And I would be foolish to not acknowledge that delighting in stories is what the mainstream audience member thirsts for. It makes the calamity of having to survive in a mortal world worthwhile.
Mortality vs. immortality is an acute debate in Kubo and the Two Strings, the new stop-motion animated film from Laika Studios, a film that anatomizes the power of storytelling with more intelligence and beauty than any film in recent memory. It contains all the serenity of a classic folk tale, the agility of a coming-of-age adventure and the grace of a brimming, culturally obeisant period epic.
Before we see anything we hear a voice telling us “If you must blink, do it now.” This turns out to be very good advice. The first thing we see is a Japanese woman on a boat in the middle of a furious ocean at night. A great tsunami appears before her and then, with one swift stroke, strums down, fast, on her shamisen, a banjo-like Japanese instrument. Suddenly, like the book of Exodus, she parts the wave and sails on through. This is one stunning opening.
In ancient Japan, Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), is a skinny kid who now uses the shamisen to spin tales of origami-puppet fights for busking. Although Kubo’s abilities may be puzzling, they won’t be to people familiar with that country’s history and culture and Kubo and the Two Strings befittingly expects its audience to grasp the rhythms and logic of the east. Those who do will be boundlessly rewarded.
Kubo does all this for his mother, who is mentally very ill due to past trauma; his father, a legendary samurai, perished trying to save Kubo in a battle that lost the young one his left eye. Kubo misses his father and attempts to find his spirit by praying. That night, something catastrophic occurs and Kubo finds himself on a quest to find three tokens that belonged to his dad: his sword, his armor and his helmet. He is pursued by his witchy aunts (Rooney Mara), both of which have been sent by his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Accompanying him on his trek are a snow monkey (Charlize Theron) and a giant, dim-witted warrior beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Both of which have been brought to life by powers unknown to Kubo yet.
Kubo and the Two Strings is the 4th feature film by Laika, an American stop-motion animation studio located in Portland, Oregon. It is owned by Nike co-founder Phil Knight and is run (as CEO and President) by his son and master animator Travis Knight. This film is Travis Knight’s first as director and, along with Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012) and The Boxtrolls (2014), Laika has proven to be totally unique, not only in the world of animation but in cinema at large. Their films have an elegiac quality that I find extremely rare in any kind of film, with a gloriously mystifying sense of tone.
Visually, they are unparalleled and this feature is no exception. Literally every frame of Kubo and the Two Strings is ravishing (designed by the great Nelson Lowry), with gorgeous sets, elegant character designs and some of the most subtle, poignant acting ever accomplished by the animators at Laika. Action set-pieces move so vividly that, for me, it was emotionally overwhelming: a sword battle with a giant Gashadokuro (humongous skeleton), an underwater escape surrounded by floating eyeballs or a climactic stand-off with a serpent-like moon beast, each sequence is as breathtaking as the last.
Many may find the plot that Mr Knight has constructed here (along with Head of Story and co-writer Chris Butler) to be less enthralling. None of the Laika films move with a propelled sense of purpose; they’re too particular for that. Mr Knight is striving for a sense of spirit, a surrealistic tenor, an objective never sought after in American animation today. Here, it works. I obviously recommend this film with total conviction but I also plead with you to watch it with both eyes open. Pay careful attention to what the film is saying.
We live in a time where alienation and condemnation are no longer instruments for security because they have become intrinsic conditions. Thus, we don't have any real sense of community anymore. Kubo and the Two Strings understands this and at the film’s denouement Mr Knight is able to make an incredible statement. The influence of a community and its stories are able to not only change the emotional state of one of the film’s characters, but also his perspective. It is a power greater than any of the magic that we witness and, as the film demonstrates, can save people from themselves. Harmony is not obtained through agreement or concurrence; it is obtained through understanding.
I admittedly spend a lot of my time watching movies because I often times prefer them to the real world. But that is because I always believe that the former affects the latter in ways that are purely positive. And since no one in my personal life would ever accuse me of being a cockeyed optimist, you should probably believe it too. It’s just difficult for one to watch humanity constantly trip over before it picks itself back up again. To paraphrase George Harrison: With every mistake, we must surely be learning. Still, my guitar gently weeps.