Kubo and the Two Strings — the latest stop-motion animation from the Portland-based Laika Entertainment — opens with a fantastic piece of advice: “If you must blink, do it now.” With that, director Travis Knight drops the audience into a fairy tale that races along without pausing to catch the audience up with a backstory. Much like Lucas’s Star Wars, Kubo builds worlds first and answers questions later. The attentive viewer need not fear: comprehension is possible without explanation.
That is the nature of classic folk tales. Or fairy tale, myth, story; call it what you will, but all are dreams that enter the public sphere in hopes of explaining the harsher aspects of existence. Stories coat otherwise random moments of non-sequitur and bring order to the universe. That order provides comfort, and comfort allows for comprehension. Without a story, life can be boiled down to a series of if-then clauses, constantly disrupted by random acts of chaos. But organize this chaos into a narrative, and illumination is possible.
That is why Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a storyteller. He is a survivor of events that transpired prior to his birth. To understand them, and his place in medieval Japan, Kubo must construct a narrative. And he does so in magical fashion through music and enchanted origami. Like a Homeric poet, Kubo brings ancient battles to life before a local crowd, using his magical samisen to breathe life into the origami for the townspeople to see the battle — namely the story of Kubo’s father, the great samurai Honzo — play out before them. It’s a bit of magic that isn’t fully explained until the story’s end. And even then, there is still plenty of room for interpretation.
Kubo inherited his storytelling abilities and that magical samisen from his mother, a powerful sorceress with a failing memory. She tells Kubo the story of his brave father battling and his violent grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) who stole Kubo’s left eye and will someday return for the right.
This imagery — familiar anyone who has picked up a collection of myths or fables — is easily communicated and immediately recognizable. Laika knows exactly when and where to capitalize on these images, generously peppering the visuals with echoes and reflections; be it a familiar scar on a character or an ancient statue cracked in just the right place. In both instances, Laika utilizes visual imagery to tell a story in clever and subliminal ways.
Like most myths and fables, Kubo and the Two Strings is a hero’s journey with notable side characters and memorable villains with the side characters, Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), providing a heavy dose of comic relief. In many spots, it works wonderfully, but not always. However, a hero’s journey can often reduce otherwise magnificent side characters into mere hero helpers. In Kubo, those two strings aren’t mere helpers; they are companions that bring poignancy to the story’s conclusion.
But as the old saying goes, a story is only as good as its villain and Kubo doesn’t disappoint. The antagonists Kubo must battle — an enormous skeleton with a skull full of swords, a series of eyes that can peer deep into your soul, twin sisters (Rooney Mara) sporting haunting Kabuki masks and the Moon King himself — are all visually inspired. They blend the perfect amount of horror and awe to draw the viewer’s eyes and glue them to the screen.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a magnificent example of what stop-motion animation can bring to the screen. Each frame that comprises every second of animation in this 101-minute film must be meticulously planned, plotted and visualized. Nothing is tossed off, or exists casually — it requires too much work — and the animators at Laika steep their story with so many visuals to wonder at, that each image can be interpreted with multiple readings.
The same can be said of Kubo’s journey, a journey that draws on many different folk tales and lore. The English-speaking cast — Theron hails from South Africa, Parkinson from Ireland, McConaughey from Texas, Mara from New York and Fiennes from England — adds another dimension of universality to this Japanese set fairy tale. And like all heroes’ journeys, the conclusion is familial. In the opening chapter of his iconic work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell identified this quest and how it has been distilled throughout time. For that, let’s let him have the final word:
Centuries of husbandry, decades of diligent culling, the work of numerous hearts and hands, have gone into the hackling, sorting and spinning of this tightly twisted yarn. Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had though to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.
Directed by: Travis Knight
Screenplay by: Marc Haimes and Chris Butler
Story by: Shannon Tindle and Marc Haimes
Produced by: Travis Knight, Arianne Sutner
Vocal work: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey, George Takei
Focus Features, Rated PG, Running time 101 minutes, Opens August 19, 2016. Streaming on DirecTV.