Animation is an interesting world at the moment. You have a large selection of work being produced in all animation mediums. With the likes of Pixar and Studio Ghibli it can be difficult to choose a favourite.
Yet of all the studios working today I have a clear favourite despite some close seconds (sorry Aardman and Cartoon Saloon). That crown must go to the stop-motion wizards over at Laika. The studio, formed in 2005, are about to release their fourth animated feature film. Considering their three previous offerings are Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls it feel as if it could be time for the studio to deliver a dud. Luckily it is safe to say that their unconventional and poignant feature Kubo and the Two Strings makes it four for four in terms of the studios strong output. With this film Laika have created a beautifully animated, mythical and engrossing modern fairy-tale.
Kubo is a young boy living with his traumatised mother away from the local village. With only one eye Kubo must shield himself from the night sky to protect him from his wicked grandfather, the Moon King, who wishes to steal his other eye. Yet Kubo is a remarkable storyteller and uses his guitar and magical abilities to entertain the local villagers. When one night he does not return home after sunset he meets his sinister aunts who want to return him to his grandfather. After his mother fights them off it is left to Kubo to retrieve his father’s armour and fight. He is joined by a faithful Monkey brought to life from a charm and a beetle warrior who once served his father. Their quest will take them across oceans and deserts and meet all array of fearsome creatures to discover the truth and face his greatest fears.
For Kubo head animator and studio CEO Travis Knight takes the helm as producer and director in his directorial debut. Despite borrowing from numerous Japanese traditions the film is only the second original feature after ParaNorman by the company.
The narrative here is not the usual three part act you would expect from a family feature but rather it reveals itself as it progresses. Kubo’s past, his parents fight and his grandfather’s true identity remain a mystery for much of the film despite impacting the plot.
Arguably, the films unconventional mode of storytelling, mixed with its darker themes, means Kubo may be lost on a younger audiences. This is not a film that feeds the audience its story but there are elements to be put together. Yet any child that is open to wonder will take something away from this film.
Kubo is not all darkness though and much of the humour is delivered by Beetle, his lack of understanding and also playful fighting with Monkey. Some of the humour feels misplaced and, although funny, feel at odds with the surreal world around them. Yet still he is a great character and protector to Kubo.
It is impossible to discuss a Laika production and not drool over their beautiful stop-motion animation. The studio have taken the medium to new heights with their nothing is impossible ethos.
Seen most brilliantly in the detail, size and scope of their latest project. Kubo not only has beautifully animated characters with detailed sets and vast landscapes, (as all their previous films demonstrate) but is still their most ambitious yet. Kubo takes the audience through the realms of fantasy with a selection of unbelievable creatures and scenes which are simply breath-taking.
The small dose of CGI used makes elements such as water, winds and backgrounds possible while their talented model makers have crafted a giant skeleton (the largest stop-motion model ever) and the monstrous Moon Beast, which small Kubo himself must face. It is hard to believe these creations are actually real but their movement and detail will dispel any doubt.
Once again the voice talent is made up of huge stars, up and comers and relative unknowns to form a strong ensemble group who bring their characters to life. Charlize Theron voices Kubo’s protective companion Monkey. Her face off against his aunts is a key rivalry in the film and opens up a truth about her caring nature of Kubo. Matthew McConaughey is Beetle, a warrior who served Kubo’s father and vows to protect his mentor’s son at any cost. He may be dim-witted at times but he is more than he seems despite his insect appearance.
As all the studios films have been fronted by children Art Parkinson joins an impressive selection of young actors (and the second Game of Thrones alumni) but once again gives a strong performance. He is able to infuse Kubo with his strength, humour, bravery but also vulnerability. The scenes with his traumatised mother are genuinely heart felt right up to his bold standoff with his grandfather. Although only seen in brief instances Kubo’s twin aunts are the most petrifying thing Laika have delivered since Coraline’s other mother. The pair, who hauntingly sneak up on Kubo, are voiced eerily by Rooney Mara. Her voice gives the two an edge which once seen and heard will not be forgotten
Kubo and the Two Strings makes that four for four in terms of strong productions for Laika studios. The company have delivered a beautiful, well told and stirring narrative. Building on all the elements of their previous films and proving in terms of animation that Laika truly are one of the most original studios working today.
(We are sorry Pixar but you lost your crown a while ago)