A studio that exclusively produces stop-motion animations, Laika’s previous creations have been magical, complex, enormously fun and utterly gorgeous. To such marvels as ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and especially the beautiful and terrifying Coraline, they can now add Kubo and the Two Strings. It definitely doesn’t break Laika’s so-far-perfect pattern. In fact, it’s probably one of my favourite films of the year, and stands well above the slew of big-budget disappointments and mediocrities we’ve been subjected to this blockbuster season. Kubo has in spades what most other 2016 releases have been devoid of: the brightest, warmest kind of magic; jaw-dropping, drool-worthy spectacle; and some real emotional heft.
I’ll only give away the bare bones of the plot, because this film is best experienced as a fresh wonder. We follow the titular Kubo (Art Parkinson) as he embarks on a quest, aided by Charlize Theron’s Monkey and Matthew McConaughey’s Beetle, to find the pieces of his father’s magical amour. Pursuing Kubo are his mother’s sisters (both voiced by a creepily crooning Rooney Mara), two terrifying witch-like creatures sent by their father, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) to return his grandson to the family’s fold.
The film quickly develops a beautiful rhythm between its quiet, heartfelt moments and intense action sequences. The latter are mesmeric; they pull you into the frenetic dance of movement and colour and sound so that everything outside the screen ceases to exist.
There’s definitely humour in Kubo, but the film’s trailers made it out to be a much more comedic – read: mainstream – adventure. It’s an adventure, sure, and it’s both immensely fun and funny, but it’s so much more than that. There’s a sweetness here, a lovely heart-warming sort of magic to the characters and the atmosphere that made me swell with more emotion than I’ve felt in a film for a long time. It’s also more than a little creepy, with echoes of Paul Berry’s terrifying 1991 stop-motion short, The Sandman (which you absolutely need to see right here), both in its eeriness and the villain’s fixation with eyes.
All these tones are sharpened by Dario Marianelli’s beautiful, smooth score, which I think ranks among some of his best works, pulling together his softer sensibilities with his mastery for big action cues.
The story unfolds in a lovely tantalising kind of way, often giving us odd glints of detail and exposition that leave much a mystery. This gives Kubo the feel of a fairytale. It both narrows the focus onto the charming character interactions, and renders the world’s mythos nebulous, giving us the sense of something vast and exhilarating just out of sight.
The film’s message – about the power of stories, and family, and humanity – isn’t exactly an original one, and in a lesser film might have come across as hamfisted or disingenuous, but in Kubo this thematic core both strengthens the film and, most importantly, comes across as truly genuine and engaging.
Part of the strength here is the precision of the storytelling. Each element fits together perfectly so that the end result has a huge impact on the audience. The ending is bittersweet and understated, a climax that nails the film’s prevalent themes and will leave you with a glassy-eyed smile on your face.
Its script and voice work might be wonderful, but it’s Kubo’s art direction that really makes the film. Its colour palette is vibrant and beautifully balanced, the creature and character design is flawless (especially the antagonists), and the use of animated origami in the film is breathtaking. As with all of Laika’s previous films, Kubo is an absolute delight to look at, and it’s clear how much passion and work went into the creation of such a beautifully realised world. The director, writers, and every member of the crew should be applauded for the cohesive vision they’ve given us. Don’t forget to stick around during the credits, too; there’s a lovely behind-the-scenes clip that will drop your jaw at the work involved in animating a film like this.
This hasn’t been a review so much as a gush of adoring adjectives. I did try to find something at least mediocre about Kubo, but I could barely find a sliver askew in this film, aside from perhaps a predictable set of twists, but this is swallowed up in the spectacle and emotion that doesn’t let you go until the credits roll. This is a near-perfect masterpiece, and it moved and delighted me in a way that rarely happens to such an extent in a film. But ultimately nothing I say can evoke what it feels like to experience this film. So put your phone down and go devour Kubo and the Two Strings immediately. Just don’t forget to be back before dark.