"I think I resent that."
There was a time, not too long ago, when quality animation was in short supply. I came of age in a time when Disney was making lackluster films like The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company, and Don Bluth was just about the only other game in town. Nowadays, though, you need more than one hand to count the number of animation houses producing quality films, and LAIKA deserves to be at or near the top of the list. With four feature films to their name, the studio has taken the realm of stop motion animation to exciting new places, and their latest film, Kubo and the Two Strings, might just be their best achievement to date.
This epic original fairy tale is the stuff of dreams for a geeky dad like me. It tells the story of a young Japanese boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson), who lives on a lonely mountain top with his mother. During the day, Kubo travels to the small village at the foot of the mountain to dazzle people with his storytelling ability, but he must always leave the village as sundown approaches. Unaware of his destiny, Kubo quickly discovers that he is meant for greater things, but only after his mother sacrifices herself to save him from her murderous sisters. In her last, selfless act, Kubo's mother transferred her conscience into the body of a monkey (Charlize Theron), who will help Kubo in his quest to find three ancient artifacts that his warrior father sought when he was murdered just after Kubo's birth.
LAIKA's mind blowing stop motion animation has always taken us to strange places that seem to exist just outside our own reality, but this is their most overtly fantastical film. It feels both as old as time itself and wonderfully immediate, giving it a timelessness that's in short supply in animation these days. Perhaps it's because there's so much actual handmade craft that goes into these films, but there's a love and attention to detail that they bring to everything they do that sets them apart from the crowd. They don't make films to help parents shut their kids up for ninety minutes, they make films that children will cherish and one day pass on to their own children.
The production design is stunning, with some major action setpieces that are sure to thrill even the most jaded audience member who thinks they've seen it all. Kubo's quests are among the most ingenious things I've seen in a film all year, and propel the film forward for most of its breezy 101 minute running time. It's what they do when the action stops, however, that makes the film truly stand out. There are some heavy themes at play in the film and while the filmmakers keep things moving, they know that they have to take their time with certain things like character development, and that doing so makes the film that much better.
The biggest thing that sets Kubo apart from the pack, however, is that it doesn't shy away from teaching kids about the permanence of death. My biggest gripe with family entertainment of late is that they all rely too heavily on the third act major character death fake-out. Some catastrophic event happens wherein the hero has sacrificed themselves and for thirty seconds, everyone cries because they think that character has died. But then they pop up, alive and well and ready to show kids that the grieving process is useless. Kubo faces loss early and often in this film, with his father having died shortly before the film began, and his mother meeting her end shortly thereafter. While there is an element of magic at play in their continued guidance of him through his journey, (spoiler alert) the film doesn't end with them coming back to life to take care of him again.
It's a bittersweet revelation to stick into a children's movie, but an essential one if they're going to take any meaningful lessons home with them. As parents, our natural instinct is to protect our children from the horrors of the real world, but even Walt Disney himself knew that children could handle heavy subject matter like death if done in a respectful way. I applaud the good people at LAIKA for carrying that message into the 21st century, because it is a truth, no matter how harsh, that all the magic in the world can't bring people back from the dead.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a revelatory film that will linger with you long after it's over. At a time when movie studios have more or less proven themselves to be creatively bankrupt, this film blows into theaters as a breath of fresh air, ready to let cynical and jaded people such as myself know that originality isn't dead, it's just in short supply. This film is a wonder for all ages to behold, and one that I'll be happy to play on a loop for my daughters if they so request. There's real magic in this film, and if you're solely focused on seeking out the tricks behind the magic, you're not really paying attention.
Directed by Travis Knight
Screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, Based on a Story by Shannon Tindle and Marc Haimes
Produced by Arianne Sutner and Travis Knight
Starring Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro
Running Time: 101 minutes