A young boy with a magical shamisen and a penchant for origami may not seem like the obvious choice to head a sweeping adventure story but that’s precisely who leads the charge in Laika’s beautiful new stop-motion animation Kubo and the Two Strings. Take a step back, though, and it makes perfect sense. The setup is similar to their previous two hits, ParaNorman and Boxtrolls (a pre-adolescent hero teamed up with an assortment of oddballs on a quest) but in Kubo (Art Parkinson) the studio have a perfect protagonist, with the heart of a lion and a gift for telling stories with lovingly crafted props.
Indeed, Kubo’s signature opening line – “If you must blink, do it now” – is not only heard when he launches into his first performance in the market of his local village, but when the film itself begins. The parallels between his extravagant mythological yarns about a brave samurai, Hanzo, and the journey he will consequently embark on are readily apparent and the inherent power of those stories – on the willing villagers around him and equally excitable cinema audiences – are the key to the film’s message and success. The stories we choose to tell and believe are employed to undercut by the myth of redemptive violence in the spectacular finale; no mean feat for a film set in a warrior society in which the plot MacGuffins make up a shining suit of golden armour.
Although there are samurai in the film – notably the living origami figure of Hanzo and the amnesiac insect-knight, Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) – the Japanese culture woven into the narrative’s flowing robes is more playfully mythological. Kubo was raised on stories of magical heroism and the threat of an evil supernatural grandfather who took his left eye when he was a baby and awaits the day that he might take the other. Kubo’s primary companion as he seeks to find the gilded armour to protect himself is a motherly talking monkey (played with ample grit and worry by Charlize Theron). These various elements come together to form a folkloric tapestry which is then dotted unobtrusively with intricate details from Japanese belief systems; the result is a far richer experience than the string of set-pieces that so many family films have become in the modern day.
Director Travis Knight and his team are also unafraid of upping the scare factor with Kubo’s twin aunts – their faces hidden behind Noh masks and Rooney Mara’s voice in stereo recalling The Shining – are both a delight and genuinely a little frightening. A giant skeleton, the star of the film’s one real prolonged action sequence, is a triumph of hand-crafted animation and also the subject during the final credits of time-lapse behind-the-scenes footage of its real world construction. Much like Kubo bringing paper to life with the strings of his shamisen, Laika are experts in wizardry, but in both cases the true magic lies in the wax and wane of their lyrical storytelling. Kubo and the Two Strings is an enormous advance from what they’ve done before, but the filmmakers don’t miss a beat. If you must blink, do it now.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson