“If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see, no matter how unusual it may seem. If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.”
— Kubo and the Two Strings
Laika Entertainment may just be the most underrated animation studio currently working. Everyone knows Disney and Pixar, you can barely go to the cinema without seeing a DreamWorks trailer, and Studio Ghibli and Aardman Animations deservedly have a large fanbase. Laika’s gorgeous features, from Coraline to ParaNorman, are mentioned much more rarely, though – which is a shame, since their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, deserves much more of an audience, as it is one of the most beautiful works of animation I’ve seen in a long time.
Inspired by Japanese mythology, Kubo tells of a young boy, a shamisen player and storyteller. Kubo lives with his ill mother who more often than not is nearly catatonic but who, in her rare lucid moments, tells her son about his evil aunts, the Sisters, and his grandfather, the Moon King, who took his left eye when Kubo was an infant. After the boy is accidentally revealed to the Moon King and they are found by the Sisters, his mother sacrifices herself protecting her son and Kubo finds himself on a quest to find three magical objects – an armour, a helmet and a sword – that he believes will help him defeat the Moon King. Soon the boy is accompanied on his journey by taciturn Monkey, a charm brought to life by his mother’s magic, and Beetle, a man-sized insectile samurai who has lost his memories, other than remembering Kubo’s father Hanzo as his former leader. After Kubo finds out that there is more to his companions than meets the eye, recovering the magical artifacts but suffering great loss along the way, he finally faces the Moon King back in the village he had left behind.
In summary, Kubo and the Two Strings sounds like a conventional folk tale complete with quest narrative. A young boy loses his parents and leaves home in order to find companions, magical objects and inner strength; these in turn allow him to return and face his enemies. Except with Laika, the main joy of the films does not lie in the facts of the story, nor does a summary do them justice. Like Aardman, Laika Entertainment is dedicated to the art of stop motion, though their style is very different from Aardman. The worlds they create are intricately detailed, lovingly animated and beautiful to behold: Kubo is filled with gorgeous creations, from swarms of origami birds to tsunami waves, from the chilling masked Sisters to the sardonic Monkey and enthusiastic Beetle, all of which are brimming with life and magic.
More than this, though, the simple-sounding story belies the depth and complexity of the themes Kubo deals with. Loss, grief, revenge and forgiveness: the film doesn’t shy away from these themes and handles them in a surprisingly mature way. It deftly balances sadness and joy, without ever talking down to its audience by spelling things out. That’s another thing that Laika does eminently well: its films are comfortable with ellipses and silences, with asking the right questions and then leaving the viewer to figure out the answers for themselves. As much as I like a lot of Pixar’s films, they rarely trust their audiences this much to do their own thinking and, just as importantly, their own feeling. Kubo is very different in that it trusts its audience to deal with both fear and sorrow.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a film of many wonders. It is exciting and funny. It is supremely eerie and creepy, with its J-horror nightmare Sisters and its seabed monster made up of too many eyes and too many teeth. It is lyrical, a visual poem about grief, resilience and storytelling. It’s not perfect: I found it much less assured with words than with images, some of its humour being surprisingly clunky (although the voice performances are perfect), and while I greatly appreciate how the final conflict is resolved, it is done too quickly, working better in concept than in practice. However, none of this changes that Laika’s latest is a cinematic gift, and as such I can only hope that it is shared with as many as possible.