A biased (and glowing) review of ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’

Though LAIKA studio's new animated movie is related to past efforts, it reaches new visual and storytelling heights

Guys. Can I tell you how wonderful Kubo is?

You don’t have to believe me. The Kubo and the Two Strings screening I attended—for “Friends and Family”—is already a hint that I’m not quite impartial. I used to work at LAIKA, the Hillsboro-based animation company that produced this movie.

That said: I’d like to think that along with my potential for bias comes an at-least-above-average understanding of what it takes to create stop-motion animation. All the time I spent running errands through the wilds of the Coraline production floor, darting between miniature pink houses and knee-high orchards of hand-twisted apple trees, I picked up bits of insight from the charismatic and creatively dexterous people who’ve shaped the modern stop-mo craft worldwide, forming strong impressions of what works, what doesn’t, and why. I’m also in the unique position of being both a LAIKA alum and an arts reviewer, so I’m torn, as most arts writers are, by opposing impulses a) to uplift artists, not limited to but including those I know, and b) to uphold a lofty, impartial standard. Each time LAIKA puts out a title, I end up both writing about it and apologizing. Here’s my ParaNorman edition, and here’s my Boxtrolls installment.

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So when I say Kubo carried me away, swept me up in its story, gave me chills and made me cry…you can believe that this happened despite my best efforts to analyze it, and to come out of that Tanasbourne screening with dry notes that would show my film-making friends how astutely I’d observed the finer points of their craft. No such luck. This film, which surpasses the previous excellence of LAIKA stop-motion and elevates the genre as a whole, left me and my nephew blubbering like idiots. So you probably have to see it to believe it. But here are my (albeit soggy) notes…

“You are my quest.”

The thematic line from Kubo and the Two Strings contains the entire scope of the story: “you” = intimate; “quest” = epic. The story’s whole tone plays out between (forgive me) those two strings.

The intimacy emerges from small, endearing gestures: Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) smoothing back his infirm mother’s hair and feeding her rice while she languishes in a fugue state, the boy’s sarcastic monkey sidekick (Charlize Theron) casting glances of…could that be adoration?…at Kubo as she bosses him along his fantastical journey, the giant “beetle” character (Matthew McConaughey)—harmless despite his riot-cop exterior—fumbling and scrambling to help his cohorts.

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The epic elements are Kubo‘s proportions (wall-like ocean waves, cameras panning up cliffs, into caves, and over the hulking specter of a beached whale, revealing the characters by comparison as mere specks in a journey that seems to span many miles and multiple dimensions) and its stakes (Life and limb! Death and afterlife! Family! Community! Safety and sanity!).

Zooming in extremely close and then out extremely wide is not a new artistic impulse, but rather a heady literary technique long since perfected by the so-called transcendental poets in the West (“Catch a falling star, Get with child a mandrake root…Ride ten thousand days and nights, Till age snow white hairs on thee” —John Donne) and haiku writers in the East (“The lamp once out, Cool stars enter, The window frame.” —Natsume Soseki). It works as well with visual images as verbal ones, and leaves the audience keenly aware of self-within-universe.

To summarize, Kubo and the Two Strings strums heart-strings and moves mountains. The feelings are as big as the story, and the story is vast and surreal.

But how does it compare to the rest of the growing LAIKA feature film canon? Having reviewed them all so far, here are my takeaways:

It maintains some signature tropes. These are a few of LAIKA’s favorite things, as evidenced by Kubo and prior titles: A lone lead character that is a human child (Coraline, Norman, Eggs, and now Kubo) who has some sort of crisis of loneliness, abandonment, isolation or alienation, as well as some heroic mission to fulfill. A villain who’s trying to steal eyes. Evil relatives (in Kubo’s case, a grandfather and two aunts). A supporting character who introduces himself by doing awkward acrobatics. Origami figures that spring to life.

It covers the most ground. When you’re creating a world in which every piece must be hand-crafted, the greatest temptation is to contain your story within a village or township. Every prior title of LAIKA’s has done this, leaving us with the impression that wherever the cobblestones hit a wall, it’s the end of the (miniature) world. Kubo departs—far—from these limits. As soon as the story gets moving, Kubo travels beyond his village, covering a wide variety of physical terrain and slipping between at least two (maybe more?) supernatural dimensions.

It’s the most seamless. One of the greatest concerns of the stop-motion craft is consistency. From frame to frame, you don’t want any jumps or jerks. From scene to scene, you want the backgrounds to feel like they all belong in the same world. And in LAIKA’s creations, where digital images and practical (aka tangible, IRL) puppets are so often blended within a given frame, you don’t want those two techniques to stand out in stark contrast to each other. In past LAIKA films, you’ll see spots where the juxtapositions/transitions between styles have been jarring. In Kubo, it’s truly hard to perceive which effects are practical and which are virtual even if you try. The textures, as piquant as ever, cohere with each other better than they ever have.

It’s the company’s first significantly Eastern/Asian story. There’s little I can say on this topic that couldn’t be said better elsewhere, maybe by someone with expertise on Asian iconography and philosophy. Maybe the curators of Portland’s Japanese Garden (which hosts traditional moon-viewing and tea ceremonies) could chime in when they get the chance? Maybe PAM could draw visual parallels between Kubo still frames and the many Japanese wood-cuts in its collection? What I can say is that even to the layperson, Kubo feels steeped in Japanese motif and aesthetic in a way that the company’s prior titles haven’t. In Kubo’s world, kimonos, chopsticks, and origami are elements of daily life—but it’s broader than that, with even water and rocks embodying a Ukiyo-e mood.

You might be surprised, however, to learn that LAIKA’s flirtation with Japanese style began way back during their first picture, Coraline. That film, which also toyed with origami figures, sourced its guiding pre-viz illustrations from Japanese concept artist Tadahiro Uesugi. But those illustrations, with their pastel palette and angular characters, bore only a fleeting resemblance to the final product’s Westernized rainbow hues and voluptuous shapes. Maybe it took more time for LAIKA to adapt Uesugi’s flat motifs to 3-D, or to sell investors on an Asian aesthetic. Regardless, Kubo appears to be the first overt expression of LAIKA’s previously quiet romance with Japanese aesthetics.

Kubo’s perception of community, family, care-giving and, indeed, “quest,” adapted from a folk tale, is something the viewer may experience as distinct to Asian culture. Death, duty, aging and the afterlife are all cast in a reverent, ancient hue as villagers honor their ancestors by lighting paper lanterns at dusk. Surely there’s also something to unpack around the film’s animal totems, Monkey and Beetle. Buddhism refers to the “monkey mind” to describe a nervous tendency that can be subdued through meditation, and there is such a thing as a Japanese Beetle, but surely more to it. In Western thought, Wittgenstein’s Beetle is to Philosophy of Mind what Schrödinger’s Cat is to Quantum Mechanics: an animal in a box that represents a puzzling quandary…but by going there we’ve definitely digressed.

It proposes a new (and complex) moral imperative. If we’re being reductive (as in art analysis, we sometimes must), every LAIKA title to date has been about a child bringing healing to a community. For Coraline, that community only extended as far as a large house divided into multiple units that her family rented in an Ashland-like rural Oregon Shakespeare town. Peace came to Coraline when she realized that scary intrigues are worse than no intrigues at all, and learned to appreciate her boring but well-meaning parents. The moral of the story? Individuals need to stop glorifying entertainment over safety, stability and love.

In ParaNorman, the community (conceived by Brit Chris Butler) was a closest-thing-America-has-to-England East Coast town with a witch-trial history. He had to reconcile the living with the dead, who took two forms, zombie and ghost. To complete that process, Norman had to confront a broader societal ill: the “witch-hunt” mentality that caused townsfolk to demonize zombies, and (twist!) had long ago caused the now-zombified Puritans to persecute a little girl for her supernatural powers. The societal challenge was accepting difference and laying sanctimony to rest.

In The Boxtrolls, the fractured community was a fictional township comprised of two groups: wealthy human insiders and marginalized, un-moneyed “troll” outsiders who were basically migrant laborers, shipped in and then eking by. The orphaned and troll-adopted human hero, Eggs, decides to use his privilege to infiltrate the oppressors and uplift the oppressed. The message here was actually very socialist/workers’ rights—a forerunner, perhaps, for the politics championed by Bernie Sanders.

Without spoilers, it can be said that Kubo’s mission—explicitly to escape with his one remaining eye intact, to look after his ailing mother and to fight off his dangerous family members—echoes each prior film’s need to mend a fractured village, but folds in several new implicit goals, including a martial-arts-like mastery of his own mind and purpose, making peace with his elders and helping them save face, absorbing the admirable qualities of his mother and father into his own character, and (a la Norman) uncluttering the pathways between the mortal world and the afterlife. We’re at maximum profundity now. Everything is everything.

As I write this part, I swear to god, again I’m choking up. Damn you, LAIKA’s slicker-than-ever puppeteers, you got me good this time.

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