Kubo and the Two Strings
Director: Travis Knight / Screenplay: Marc Haimes & Chris Butler (from story by Shannon Tindle) / Editing: Christopher Murrie / DP: Frank Passingham / Music: Dario Marianelli
Cast: Art Parkinson / Charlize Theron / Brenda Vaccaro / Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa / George Takei / Rooney Mara / Ralph Fiennes / Matthew McConaughey
Based in Portland, Oregon, Laika Studios have produced some remarkable work over the years. Beginning with the stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (2009), through ParaNorman (2012) and the satisfyingly mulchy aesthetic of The Boxtrolls (2014), their output has never failed to charm. The result? A well-regarded studio, in a niche with few competitors, other than the UK’s Aardman Studios and the efforts of Director Wes Anderson.
I think it’s fair to say, however, that with Kubo and the Two Strings, they’ve outdone themselves, producing a film of intense beauty and inventiveness. Kubo might very well prove to be their masterpiece.
As CGI-movies become ever-cheaper to deliver, producing a stop-motion film gets harder to justify to the bean-counters. Paradoxically however – and in what must be the most incestuous branch of the film business – the longer a studio such as Laika can survive (easier said than done), the easier it gets to attract the key talent: after all, someone’s got to scratch-build sets, sculpt & dress puppets and, you know, animate them; re-posing them in frame-after-frame of laborious, time-consuming effort. It therefore helps if, as in the case of Laika, a studio’s backed by someone with both very deep pockets and belief in the medium.
There’s something intangibly satisfying about the end result, that a film wholly assembled from CGI elements still can’t match. Aardman’s Nick Park talks of the satisfaction involved in seeing the odd thumbprint in his Plasticine characters, as it represents a link between the original film-maker and the audience. Though Laika are using a different array of materials, human ‘thumbprints’ of a different kind are all over Kubo.
Set in Feudal Japan, the film begins in dramatic style, as we see a lady in a kimono, adrift at-sea in a small boat. She plays her Shamisen (a traditional Japanese banjo) to part a Tsunami-like wave that’s about to bear-down upon her. Yep, she’s capable of magic, though it seems her powers don’t extend to looking behind, after her little boat’s slipped through the wave. If they did, she’d see that the wave had ‘changed its mind’ and was falling back on itself, to tip her out from behind. Somewhat battered, she wakes on an unfamiliar shore. We see her swaddled infant washed-up beside her: Kubo.
Fast-Forward a few years. Now a growing boy, Kubo is preparing a spartan meal of rice. He and his mother dwell in a cave, existing in a near-silent realm; his mother almost mute, as a result of the shipwreck and perhaps more. Throughout this bare, constrictive sequence, Director Travis Knight is effective at withholding key information about the world beyond. For now, his – our – focus is concentrated on this cave, in this moment. The delicate score by Dario Marianelli, is also restrained; driven by a single piano motif & soaring choir, that underscores Kubo’s love for & dedication to his mother. There’s also no dialogue here. Instead, Knight is so confident in his material, he’s content to let the film ‘speak for itself’.
Knight then peels the camera away. We see their cave is actually atop a stylised cliff, which slopes down to a distant village and it’s to this that Kubo now runs, passing through a beautiful, sun-burnished wheat field en-route. In the village is life – people – and as Kubo’s excitement grows the closer to it he gets, so Marianelli’s score gets livelier. It’s a remarkable transition, reflecting Marianelli’s understanding of the material.
In the village, Kubo sits beside an old woman, Kameyo (Brenda Vaccaro). As he walks, Director Knight gives us glimpses of little details in his production; ‘blink & miss’ touches that reflect the film’s degree of craft. Look at the rice-paper parasols or a villager doing a spot of basket-weaving and marvel as you remember you’re watching animated puppets, just a few inches high, in-action that’s had to be photographed frame-by-painstaking-frame…
Prompted by Kameyo, Kubo (Art Parkinson) strides out to the village square and, brandishing his mother’s Shamisen announces:
If you must blink, do it now!
So begins Kubo’s show. A virtuoso busker, he tells the story of a fabled Samurai warrior, to a growing crowd entranced by magically-animated Origami figures; brought to life by the Shamisen, that Kubo plays like a rock-guitar hero. The show climaxes when the red-paper Samurai ‘kills’ the ‘fire-breathing chicken’; the resulting ‘fountain of blood’, actually a burst of red confetti, that delights the kids in the audience as much as it thrills the cynical adults. It’s clever writing, this, as it’s setting-up the idea that Kubo’s story might actually be grounded in something real. Then again, we’re also seeing a glimpse of his ability at using music to conjure magic: and isn’t that just like music?
Then we’re back at the cave for a chance to pause and reflect. Now Kubo’s mother tells reminds him that his own Aunts and Grandfather are searching for him, at-night, which is why he has to, (A) Wear his father’s robe at all times, (B), Carry a monkey charm at all times and (C) Never be out at-night…
Then we realise: Kubo’s left eye is missing. He wears an eyepatch, over which a scraggly fringe usually hangs. His mother tells him that, should her family catch him, he’ll lose his other eye as well… It’s the standard premise of any dark tale by authors such as The Brothers Grimm, but neither of the film’s two writers (Marc Haimes & Chris Butler) are shying-away from the implications of this idea. I can’t think of another premise to an animated feature as bleak as this, since Disney’s Snow White (1937); if any come to-mind, be sure to let me know…
So, naturally, we don’t have long to wait for this to play-out.
Cut-to: Festival Time. The villagers are floating paper lanterns down the river, carrying remembrances of ‘the departed’. Kubo thinks of his own missing father and uses his own skill as an Origami Ninja, to make a lantern of his own. Alas, his father’s spirit fails to light-up the lantern, or materialise in any other way, and the experience leaves him outside at-dusk.
Cue: Kubo’s two Aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara). With their faces hidden behind expressionless masks (all very Kabuki-inspired), they float above the ground without moving their legs; an effect I found genuinely creepy which, I suppose, was the intended effect. His mother now intervenes in the nick of time. After conjuring a pair of wings from the beetle sigil embroidered into the back of Kubo’s robe, she has him fly to safety, while she engages her siblings in a desperate – though conclusive – fight that ends with a bright flash of white light. We need nothing more, to know she’s died to save her son…
Kubo wakes on a snowfield in ‘the distant lands’. Staring at him, is a talking Japanese Macaque monkey; that hardy breed most often associated with languorous soaks in geothermal ponds. It would appear to be Kubo’s lucky charm brought-to-life and now it – or rather, she – is talking to him, then carrying him to shelter (in a beached whale, naturally). It’s no spoiler to reveal this monkey to be the ‘magically-transferred’ spirit of his mother (the carry-over voice talent of Charlize Theron, being a given). Monkey (the very name harks back to classical Japanese themes) has an intricate design, with soft-grey tufts of fur set against an opaque, expressive face of coral-pink. Guided by a re-folded red Samurai, Kubo & Monkey soon meet an animated, man-sized Rhinoceros Beetle, voiced by an alert, extemporising Matthew McConaughey. With its array of dings & cracks, Beetle’s armour has the look of weathered, beaten-steel and is animated with a convincing suggestion of heft.
Beetle, a figure who once knew Kubo’s father, will now act as the boy’s ‘father-figure’ and, alongside Monkey, will give Kubo the sense of ‘family’ he’s been missing all along. Again, it’s an important message: that not every family need resemble that which you’re led to believe is the norm. After all, here’s a young boy with a magically-possessed Macaque for a mother and an oversized talking Beetle for a father, all guided by an animated Origami warrior… I guess you have to take your family as you find it!
Now the table is set. From this point, the film plays-out as a ‘road-movie’, as our trio of heroes vanquish a trio of impressive foes to retrieve a McGuffin-like set of, you guessed it, three pieces of ‘magical armour’; the only effective counter Kubo can use, against his Grandfather ‘the Moon King’ (you’ll recall his, err, unusual desire to take Kubo’s remaining eye?). Along the way, the film-makers will show us diverse landscapes, an impressive boat made from fallen leaves & twigs, an animated skeleton that just has to be paying homage to Ray Harryhausen and so much more. Who can see the shot of a piece of ship’s-rigging fall-to-camera and the immediate jump-cut to Kubo falling-away and not think of the bone-to-space-station match-cut in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey?
Some reviews at the time of the film’s release, expressed (laughable) disappointment that certain tropes and/or sequences weren’t longer, but I think they’re missing the point. A project such as Kubo has a budget, like any other film. And a release date. And, in all likelihood, a team that was working flat-out to get the movie finished (in one form or another) and delivered to theatres. That we got what we did, is a blessing, more than a lament for what isn’t there and is something to be celebrated by every lover of film.
For if nothing else, Kubo is a meditation on the transience of life… Of the Buddhist teachings, that our time on Earth is but one temporary phase of a much longer journey. Kubo sees this at first-hand, in the death of his mother and companions. Any anguish resulting, is balanced with the ability of the lanterns to invoke the spirits of the dead, as well as a moving final shot in which Kubo’s beliefs are validated.
Think about it. These are BIG ideas, presented in a stop-motion feature, rated P.G!
There was a time, not so long ago, when animation was treated as little more than ‘filler’ for an indiscriminate, undemanding audience of pre-teens, with no aspirations for anything more discerning. But since Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), the mood music has, gradually, changed thanks to a shift in audience demographics. The linga-franca of film has also expanded. We expect more: and our film-makers are occasionally allowed to show us more, as new platforms and outlets for their talent take advantage of emerging technologies. You wouldn’t think it, but the advent of digital photography has drastically reduced costs in stop-motion, as it gives animators the freedom to re-take shots – to experiment – without the costs of having film developed… Laika has also invested in its own CGI technologies, for animating large crowd scenes, for example: why spend the time hand-posing innumerable extras, if they’re never going to be the focus of a set-up or shot? In this way, the studio is pursuing a rational approach to the medium and giving itself the best chance of a viable future.
Studios such as Pixar, led the way for a new breed of film-makers to choose animation as a definite choice; not just for its artistic possibilities, but with a growing realisation that they could still tell the stories they wanted to tell. That’s how Laika came to exist in the first place and why Kubo and the Two Strings is, arguably, the highest expression of its art.
Like Kubo’s paper, we shift. We transform, so we can continue our story from another place. The end of one story is merely the beginning of another.