If you must blink … do it now
American-based production house Laika has firmly established itself over the course of the last seven years and four luminously good feature films such as Coraline and The Boxtrolls, as a master storyteller of the highest order.
Their gift for enchanting films that excel both narratively, visually and character-wise continues with Kubo and the Two Strings, directed by Laika’s lead animator Travis Knight to a screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler.
The story of Kubo (Art Parkinson), an unusually gifted young boy who entertains the villagers of the village near the cave where he lives with his ailing, often emotionally-withdrawn mother (Charlize Theron) with boldly dramatic stories acted out with near-sentient origami creations that seem to spring magically from nowhere, the film is a rich twist on the golden oldie fable of the unsuspecting innocent who has gifts beyond comprehension and a destiny far beyond their current circumstance.
So far, so Lord of the Rings you might think.
But this is where the true mesmerising genius of Laika emerges.
While the storyline and the tropes have been done a thousand times before, Laika invests them with a supernatural playfulness that makes Kubo and the Two Strings a joy to behold and a emotional journey that you can help but be profoundly moved by.
It is the story of deep, abiding love, of family and of coldblooded perfection versus warm and flawed imperfection, all told with an inventive, imaginative visual style that brings the story every bit as alive as Kubo’s summoned paper creations.
And it is perfectly told, with not a second too much running time and a gift for seamlessly weaving in exposition in such a way that the film continues on uninterrupted, its delightful narrative unimpeded.
And what an all-engrossing, utterly-immersive story it is.
In short order, Kubo finds out just how real the stories his mother have told him about his brave, warrior father Hanzo (Matthew McConaughey) are, and how powerful the magic he possesses is, capable of far more than giving a flock of origami birds flight. (Although he does this and it is one of the most strikingly beautiful scenes in a film replete with such visual pleasures.)
Forced to flee the village and leave his mother behind, he finds companionship with a crotchety but wise and eminently-capable monkey Sariatu and a beetle-man called, simply enough Beetle who “don’t got this” more than he does, at least at first.
But together with Kubo’s ever-growing skills, which are able to summon a ship out of the ether – how this is done is another of the film’s arresting moments – the threesome set off to find the armour that once belonged to Hanzo, the possession of which is the only way that Kubo can stop his wicked family headed by Raiden the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and the Sisters (Rooney Mara) from taking him back to their amoral lair in the heavens, leeching all his humanity in the process.
It’s a fierce and unpredictable, and at times joyously silly battle, with quip-laden oneliners jostling for space with moments of insight and deep, rich humanity.
Kubo and the Two Strings seems effortlessly able to balance what would otherwise be a competing set of priorities – it is touching and sweet, meaningful and substantial and goofy and just a little silly, which makes sense since Kubo is after all, hero or not, still a boy.
He treats his quest seriously but he’s still prone to temporary fits of pique, to frustration that he is allowed to do what he wants when he wants and this brings the film a pleasing earthiness and realism that sits nicely along its more fantastical elements,.
At it’s heart, Kubo and the Two Strings, which in its credits plays the customary behind-the-scenes footage which has become a standard of Laika’s stop-motion wonders, is a salutary though not manipulatively overplayed lesson in belonging and family.
Faced with the cruel inhumanity of his heavenly family, who are anything but that in nature and deed, Kubo is forced to grapple with who he is and who he wants to be.
It’s the old nature versus nurture debate writ large across a deliciously luxurious landscape that features epic journeys across a lake, descent into skeleton-filled caves and a showdown with a serpent that bears more than a passing resemblance to the denizens of Japanese lore, and it all boils down to a decision – do you acknowledge the primacy of your ancestrally powerful family or give preference to who you have been raised to be in their absence?
It’s a weight decision but one that Kubo is able to easily handle by the end of the film with Haimes and Butler investing the titular character with a growth arc that makes sense at every stage and grants a magical film some grounding in authentic, rewarding humanity.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a superlative film on every level, ticking off every conceivable box with aplomb and giving us another classic animated film that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the very best out there.