“If you must blink, do it now.”
So opens Kubo and the Two Strings, and it’s hard to think of a more apt opening. Get all your blinking out of the way, because you won’t want to miss a frame of the exquisitely animated, heartbreakingly powerful latest from Laika.
The stop-motion studio that first made its name with an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is back with what is undoubtedly its finest work yet. Kubo is a young boy in a small Japanese village, left to look after his sick mother and raise money telling stories using magic origami, all controlled by his shamisen (think a sort of three-stringed guitar). That may clue you in to the fact that he’s no ordinary boy: he’s the grandson of the divine Moon King, and is being hunted by gramps and his two aunts, who are eager to steal his eye, after robbing him of one at birth. He’s soon hurled onto a quest to retrieve a magical suit of armour, added by a talking monkey and a beetle samurai, to protect himself from his family.
It’s a dreamy, mythology-soaked plot, as likely to meditate on memories and the power of storytelling as it is to offer up an exciting set piece. Though when it does, they’re pretty extraordinary: a mid-film fight with a towering skeleton is thrilling stuff, while the opening ocean storm alone is enough to make jaws drop. That’s in no small part thanks to Laika’s stunning animation, which has matured by some way since Coraline. From Kubo’s intricate origami to the implacable evil sisters, the world of feudal Japan is brought to life beautifully, the stop-motion is seamlessly enhanced by CGI flourishes. This is the sort of film you want to luxuriate in, soaking up every sight and sound from the biggest screen you can find.
Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey lead the able voice cast that bring life to Laika’s creation, finding space both for the film’s comedic beats and its moments of heartbreak. Rooney Mara is a particular standout as Kubo’s identical, sinister sisters, able to send a shiver down your spine with a simple, “Kubo…”
Given the plot, it’s no surprise that themes of family weigh heavily on the film, but it’s thankfully free of saccharine morals about family bonds trumping all. Instead it opts for a more complex conclusion, acknowledging both the strengths and the limitations of familial bonds. More than that though, it’s concerned with the links between stories and memories, and the power of both to shape not only our perceptions, but the world itself.
Don’t make the mistake of writing Kubo and the Two Strings off as a simple kids’ film. Sure, it’s got the child protagonist, the talking animal sidekick, and the silly sense of humour, but it’s more than that. This is powerful, inventive fare, the output of a studio at the height of its powers, making films that only it ever could.
Words by Dominic Preston