Animated masterpieces are few and far between. There are a lot of really good animated films, but the truly brilliant works come along so rarely, they make you sit up and take notice, in a way only the best of cinema can. Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest stop-motion movie from animation studio Laika, is one such achievement.
Laika previously brought Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls to the big-screen: all visually inventive movies that never quite tapped into their true potential. Kubo and the Two Strings, their fourth feature, changes the scenery from the get-go, taking places not in New England or Great Britain but in ancient Japan. The setting shift alone helps Kubo go places none of its predecessors did.
Kubo (Art Parkinson) lives with his mother atop a mountain, outside a village where he frequently busks. Playing his shamisen, Kubo mystically controls origami paper to act out epic stories for the excited crowds, until the sun goes down. The moment it does, he races home; his mother has a few unbreakable rules, one of which is that Kubo must never stay outside after dark.
As his increasingly sick mother tells it, Kubo’s evil grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), and his two wicked aunts (Rooney Mara) stole one of Kubo’s eyes when he was a baby and have been hunting for him ever since, to collect the other one.
When Kubo, as children do, immediately proceeds to stay out after sundown, his aunts show up and nearly catch Kubo, before his mother intervenes, using supernatural powers to spirit Kubo away to safety.
Kubo awakens in a snowstorm with a bossy, talking monkey, who was tasked by Kubo’s mother to keep him safe. Monkey (Charlize Theron) tells Kubo that his aunts and grandfather and still coming for him, currently hunting them down, and that his only chance of fighting them is by tracking down the armour of his deceased father, the samurai warrior Hanzo.
Joining Kubo and Monkey on their quest is Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a warrior cursed into a half-insect, half-human existence and the source of much of the movie’s comic relief.
While the tale of Kubo and the Two Strings feels like it should be familiar, the delivery of the material and the dazzling imagery of the visuals create magic out of the seemingly traditional storyline.
Directed by Travis Knight, CEO of Laika, Kubo and the Two Strings is the most gorgeous animated creation since Fantastic Mr. Fox or WALL-E. The average mainstream movie is lucky to have one or two moments that could exist poster-size and be hung upon a wall as art; Kubo has over a dozen, many of which I can still picture just as vividly twelve hours later.
The artistry on display here is staggering. In a sub-genre that includes everything from The Nightmare Before Christmas to Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Kubo and the Two Strings could well be the pinnacle of stop-motion features.
Existing in an aesthetic somewhere between 1996’s James and the Giant Peach and the works of Hayao Miyazaki, the look of Kubo is something otherworldly, particularly in many of the wide shots that beg you to consider the insane minds that attempted it all using the most time-consuming method of animation.
Everyone in the voice cast does an excellent job. Ralph Fiennes thankfully recalls neither Voldemort nor Victor Quartermaine, and Art Parkinson more than holds his own against his more pedigreed co-stars.
Charlize Theron is expectedly good, but not quite as good as Matthew McConaughey, whose bemused line deliveries and goofily random reactions bring to mind George Clooney’s performance as the titular protagonist of Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s great comedic acting made all the funnier by Beetle’s quirky behaviour, as animated by Knight and his team of artists.
Great animated movies come along with regularity, as When Marnie was There, The LEGO Movie, Ernest & Celestine, Frozen, A Cat in Paris, The Secret World of Arrietty, The Pirates!: Band of Misfits, and Rango have proven in just the last five years.
The timeless works of brilliance that change what you expect from a movie come along far less frequently. The last one, in my book, was Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, five years ago. I would not be surprised if it takes another five years for the world gets an animated movie worthy of succeeding Kubo and the Two Strings.