Laika, the studio known for helping keep stop motion animation alive over the last several years with gems like Coraline and Paranorman, has a wonderful talent for centering its films around the nature of storytelling. How stories we’re told hold us back into an abyss or inspire us to change our ways for the better. A theme that’s key to the art form of stop motion; using crafts made characters to tell otherworldly stories of far off fictional places and complete tasks impossible to do in live action. Their latest effort Kubo and the Two Strings takes this approach with the right loving embrace, holding on tight to the fantastical while allowing room for the emotional resonance that can be parsed out amongst the spectacle.
The titular Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) even utilizes stop motion in a magical fashion to tell his own stories via origami sculptures that are controlled by his guitar playing. It’s sensational and probably less time consuming that actual animation would be, but it immediately introduces Kubo’s creativity without over explaining the magic. Kubo and the Two Strings takes an interesting spin on magic in this case, utilizing it as a representation for what these characters provide the world. The titular Kubo tells stories. His mother tries to protect him. The Moon King and Sisters villains try to destroy familial bonds in order to gain power. Each personalized use of magic feeds into the characters as they go on their journey, told through this gorgeous stop motion format. The puppetry gives these characters more personality than any other scenery heavy sequences in previous Laika productions.
This is particularly the case with Kubo and the Two Strings, which refers to the three main characters. The titular Kubo is left without any familial bonds by the first 15 minutes, which were strong and tragic in how they played out. We get a sense of Kubo’s daily routine which makes the break in it all the more devastating as that reality is thrown upside down the moment Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) comes into the picture to keep Kubo safe. Things only continue to get fantastical from there, but the emotional core of this protective monkey and eventually the well meaning doofus warrior Beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) keeps things centered. They’re an unlikely family that forms, one that learns from each other while trying to protect each other. The “Two Strings” part of the title becomes especially poignant by third act, when this approach hits some damn emotional turns that fit the Japanese mythology elements really well.
Even the villains of Kubo and the Two Strings have a curious edge. The Moon King (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) has a specific bond to Kubo that’s two fold. While being very familial in theory given their blood relationship of grandfather and son, the former took the latter’s eye to fit his narrative. The narrative that has him suppressing Kubo into being his laky like The Sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara). The elegant yet terrifying designs at play are phenomenal while evoking Japanese folklore and older martial arts/fantasy films. There’s a grace in their precision but a violent rage when they attack. Best of all, the conflicts culminate in one of the better third acts this summer that doesn’t involve too much inherent violence or a giant beam in the sky or even a death. If anything, the finale of Kubo and the Two Strings is a celebration of life and how influential we can be on others through how their legacy lives on even past the mortal coil.
Kubo and the Two Strings is the kind of high fantasy animated film that we need. In a summer full of forgettable retreads like Finding Dory or Secret Life of Pets that relied far too heavily on specific modern animation tropes, Kubo and the Two Strings feels so unique and vibrant. I’m sure this won’t make half the gross of those other films, which is sad considering how much more memorable and engrossing Kubo and the Two Strings is. The colors and quality of the animated performances shine bright. There’s a fun quest story that results in some of the more imaginative set pieces this summer, but also keeps a consistent emotional context that tugs at the heartstrings without ever feeling maudlin. It’s a beautiful film about the art of storytelling, finding a family in those around you and being aware of how everyone fits into your narrative without compromising who they – or you -are.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Origami Warriors
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