More so than Pixar, Aardman or any other western animation studio you could care to name, Laika dance to the beat of their own drum. They have gone on the record about a refusal to make sequels to their movies, with each new release feeling entirely like an artistic labour of love, as opposed to an animated cash-in, like so much child-friendly fare that floods cinemas. Even on a storytelling level, they are in a league of their own; their movies are horror inflected, slow paced and have dark thematic elements that all but alienate the younger audiences their parent studio tries to target their movies towards.
In other words, I love Laika. With each new movie, their brand of stop-motion animation becomes more visually accomplished and jaw droppingly stunning, whilst the bigger the budgets get, the more artistically uncompromising their form of storytelling becomes. Kubo and the Two Strings is not a film that any other Western animation studio would ever dream of creating. In fact, the deeply philosophical tale told here is far closer to Studio Ghibli than anything Pixar, a team of well-known Miyazaki obsessives, would be able to come up with. Pixar have long held the monopoly on emotional complexities in what on first glance appear to be simplistic family films. Here, Laika have not only beaten them at their own game, but they now appear to be the natural successors to the recently out-of-operation Ghibli.
In Ancient Japan, one eyed youngster Kubo (Art Parkinson) lives on the top of a mountain with his ill mother, making a living telling stories by playing guitar and magically manipulating origami paper in the village below. One day, he stays in the village past sundown and finds that the spectral “sisters” (Rooney Mara) of his mother are eager to let all hell break loose to steal his other eye. His mother uses her magic to send him on a quest, far away from the city, to find his deceased father’s magic armour to protect from their attacks.
The entire quest-style narrative of Kubo is merely a McGuffin for the majority of the film, acting merely as an excuse for sequences that explore the nature of family, philosophy and death. This isn’t just an allegory for mortality designed to teach children about the circle of life, in the same vein as every other Disney movie from Bambi onwards. This is a Bergman-esque pontification on the very nature of life that confronts the subject matter head on. By using Eastern mythicism to explore these themes, instead of preaching a religious or anti-religious sentiment about mortality, it slowly, quietly becomes one of the most hopeful and emotionally mature depictions of existentialist themes in recent memory.
The slow burning nature of the movie and the infrequent dialogue about such subject matter will alienate young audiences. Like Ghibli’s best work, it may be suitable for children (even if the opening minutes allude to baby Kubo’s eye being ripped from his face, Kill Bill style), but the emotional resonance within will only truly be felt by more mature viewers. Which makes it sound unbearably pretentious, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Kubo is joined on his quest by Monkey and Beetle, voiced by Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey respectively. The pair make for a fantastic double act, trading barbs of warm humour that makes them feel like an old married couple due to their incessant bickering. They make Kubo’s quest all the more enjoyable, even if the quest does feel like a McGuffin until the final act, when the villain becomes more fully realised and the threat to Kubo ceases to be abstract.
One of the major themes of Kubo is memory and how that affects storytelling. Kubo makes his living as a storyteller in a small Japanese village, always disappointing the locals by never finishing his story. Throughout, we hear the stories and mythologies of other characters entwined with him learning the end of his own story, that creates a fantastic meta element that doesn’t call attention to its own cleverness, in the way so many meta-fictional narratives do. The screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler is one of the year’s best, due to how subtly it handles such hefty narrative concepts. It may alienate young audiences, but it still possesses a lovable simplicity; you could call it a beginner’s guide to meta due to the simplicity on display, but that would undersell just how perfectly realised it is.
Kubo and The Two Strings is the most breathtaking animated film of the year – and a runaway contender for best of the year as a whole. This is a studio on the top of their game, both visually, narratively and every other way you can think of. You’d be a fool to miss out on this breathtaking gem.