Laika’s done it again, revolutionizing stop-motion animation in their Japanese inspired tale about a young hero embarking on his quest. Every single time I watch a Laika film my mind is blown away by the meticulously crafted worlds they are able to create, the hyper-stylized animation they’re able to create by use of puppets and innovative animation techniques, Laika is a studio that is constantly pushing the limits when it comes to animation and if they continue on such a glorious path I might dub them the North American Studio Gibli. Someone reading this review probably just yelled out heretic, but looking back at the tremendous track-record Laika has out together, from Coraline to Kubo, their work contains eye-popping visuals, wonderfully creative tales, and a technical prowess other animation studios envy.
Now, focusing on how Kubo and the Two Strings helps strengthen that blossoming legacy, I’d have to say Kubo is their best work to date despite not being my favorite. Surely that seems paradoxical, but let’s say you agree on Citizen Kane being the best movie ever made, that doesn’t automatically make Citizen Kane your favorite movie of all time. The same happens here, despite my respect for the inventive nature of Kubo, my bizarre love for the haunting Coraline is unconquerable. Getting back on track, Kubo and the Two Strings is a delightful hero’s journey that leads us on a beautifully enchanting adventure through the fabricated wonderlands Laika has constructed as Kubo and his two companions search for three pieces of a legendary armor that will help him confront the Moon King, who also happens to be his grandfather.
Not only do you have an awesome quest to look forward to with this film, but due to the rivalry among kindred there’s also a fair amount of family drama of epic proportions as humans confront the gods that challenge them. With the addition of god-like entities and amazing action sequences that I cannot wrap my head around how they were made, Kubo and the Two Strings cements itself narratively as a true film epic, engaging in the same ambitious nature Star Wars did back in the 70’s.
As for the sheer originality of the project, it’s something to admire in today’s world of more and more conventional and predictable storylines. The way Travis Knight designed the world Kubo resides is truly remarkable, creating these sweeping landscapes full of lush sights that bring the world to life. The way water is animated in this film is mesmerizing, especially a sequence revolving around a battle that occurs on a boat in the middle of tempestuous climate. The way that style of animation goes hand-in-hand with the characters that live among it creates an experience like no other. Speaking of characters, the creative mastery of character that went into creating each one is resonant throughout the film, as super-talents like Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey and Charlize Theron breathe life into these characters that appear so silly on the surface but prove to be much more due to some fantastic voice-work. Speaking of character-presence, I can’t go without mentioning Art Parkinson’s great turn as the story-teller who becomes the protagonist of those same epic stories in Kubo. At the same time, discussing the originality of the project, the way Kubo tells stories is so cool and fits perfectly with the style of animation that’s being presented on-screen.
As for the story, despite being utterly original with what it does to the formula, does follow a formula in the end. But, so does Star Wars and most great classical Greek stories, one should not focus on the story Kubo and the Two Strings decides to follow, but rather focus on what it is able to do with that story. Viewed from that angle, Kubo directs the hero’s journey through uncharted territory that never fails to be exciting. That being said, I do have a problem with the way most Laika films end, the way they deal with their villain, and the moral of the story. This is also something that happens in Paranorman and if you’ve seen that film I can assure you that you know what I’m speaking about.
In the end, Kubo and the Two Strings is another triumph for the stop-motion based studio that breaks new ground with every film they release. Although the film is subject to the machinations of the classic Hero’s Journey, the way Travis Knight directs the action goes beyond the limitations of this classical narrative and delivers on a uniquely exciting and epic fable about a boy embarking on a quest. The film’s cast delivers with great performances, giving each character depth and making the action seem even more realistic than it already does, as well as tapping into the script’s comedic sensibilities too. Kubo and the Two Strings is a wonderful animated feature deserving of its Oscar nomination that leads a conventional story-structure in an entirely wildly original direction that only Laika studios could have forged.