Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
By distancing itself from competition with other players and keeping stop-motion animation alive & relevant in this day & age when majority of animation studios have jumped aboard the 3D computer animation bandwagon, Laika Entertainment, LLC has built an incredibly strong reputation over the years and is one of the rare film studios on the planet that’s all about bringing reverberating tales & compelling characters to life on the big screen while setting higher bars for its art-form by pushing stop-motion animation into uncharted realms.
Entering into the world of feature filmmaking in 2009 with Coraline, Laika has never swayed away from dark, macabre themes despite its films being aimed at families than any particular crowd and it is this boldness plus its greater emphasis on story & characters that has set this animation studio apart from the herd. Their first feature remains a masterwork of first-rate storytelling, ParaNorman showcased breathtaking stop-motion animation, The Boxtrolls managed to keep the studio’s winning streak alive but their latest may very well be Laika’s most challenging film to date.
The fourth feature film by Laika Entertainment, LLC finds the studio beautifully balancing its rich, colourful fable with adult-oriented themes & action-packed extravaganza to succeed as another enriching, enthralling & exquisite delight for viewers of all ages, plus it absolutely decimates the earlier benchmarks the studio may have set with its previous features, for what the animators pull off here is something that blows the competition away. A stunning example of handcrafted magic, Laika’s latest is a visual feast that’s entertaining, enlightening & rewarding in more ways than one.
Set in ancient Japan, Kubo and the Two Strings tells the story of its titular character, a young kid with one eye who lives a life of solitude with his mother in a cave atop a mountain after she staged a daring escape from her world to save her boy. Explicitly warned to return home before dark, Kubo spends his daytime at a nearby village, entertaining the locals with tales of a brave warrior through his magical shamisen & enchanted origami. But when he fails to make it home on time one evening, a chain of events are set in motion that ultimately dispatches him on a quest to confront his fate.
Co-produced & directed by Travis Knight, the CEO of Laika Studios, in what is his directional debut, Kubo and the Two Strings opens with a brief prologue & a clever monologue that offers its viewers a peek of the world that’s waiting ahead and a mindset required to fully grasp it. The first act takes its time to pave the necessary groundwork before heading for the adventure that lies in front of it and Knight’s composed direction exhibits all the hallmarks of a promising talent as this new filmmaker-in-town expertly handles all the aspects and makes them work in harmony.
The script packs a fable that borrows heavily from Japanese cultures & folktales yet it brims with an originality of its own, not to mention that it provides complete arcs to its characters. The theme of duality keeps surfacing throughout the picture, be it life or death, light or dark, love or hate, etc but despite its grim tone & morbid elements, the film never hesitates to indulge in lighthearted humour whenever an opportunity strikes, plus the character interaction only helps in the evolution of their respective arcs by developing their individual stories while strengthening the chemistry between them.
From the technical standpoint, Kubo and the Two Strings is nothing short of an extraordinary feat. The images are rich in colours & textures, the CGI background seamlessly & silently synchronizes with the stop-motion animation, plus there are some grand set pieces that give viewers a sense of the daunting task the animators undertook plus the painstaking effort that was required to render those complex sequences with such effectiveness. The wisely chosen camera angles, wide range of colour palette & fluid movements do contribute in enhancing its drama and they do so in a very subtle manner.
Editing is well-executed and allows the story to unfold at its own pace, thus letting its characters evolve at their own rate. However, it may not go well with everyone as its final act does feel a tad too stretched, even if it culminates on a fitting note. The background score is absorbing and always in tune with the transpiring events. The voice cast consists of Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara & Ralph Fiennes, each playing their part to near-perfection, with Theron, McConaughey & Mara impressing the most in their respective roles of Monkey, Beetle & the evil Sisters.
On an overall scale, Kubo and the Two Strings is a thrilling amalgamation of a deeply fascinating mythology, smart storytelling, mature themes, interesting character arcs, clever wit, outstanding voice-work & unparalleled stop-motion wizardry, and isn’t just arguably the best animated film to surface on silver screen in 2016 but is well worthy of a spot amongst the finest films of its year. A handcrafted labour of love that’s executed with precision, narrated with finesse, and is catapulted to greater heights by its groundbreaking stop-motion animation, Kubo and the Two Strings is passionate filmmaking & dextrous craftsmanship at its best. Highly recommended.