Motion-picture: Kubo and the Two Thumbs Up

Kubo and the Two Strings must have been a hard pitch to sell in Studio Laika’s development room. “So, we have a family movie about a young hero who has to fulfill his destiny.” So far, so good. “He has the power to strum a guitar and make magical stuff happen, like origami coming to life or wings growing out of his back.” Okay, a little weird, but creative. What else? “His traveling companions are a talking monkey and giant beetle human, and he’s being hunted by two scarecrow-like witches. Oh, and the entire movie will be made out of clay.”

For all of Kubo’s eclectic parts, the movie is a resounding success. It’s Laika’s fourth outing (the studio also brought us delights such as Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls), and perhaps its most successful. It uses 3-D stop-motion with clay models, a technique that has been breathtaking since Coraline and has only improved. Director Travis Knight, also president of Laika, created a kid’s tale that’s remarkable in almost every regard in his debut as a director. Two strings up.

Taking place in ancient Japan, the film follows Kubo (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Art Parkinson) who lives in a mountainside cave above a village rich with Japanese culture. He entertains the townsfolk by folding origami characters and bringing them to life with a strum of his three-stringed instrument called a shamisen, resembling a guitar. His mother (voiced with wonderful precision by Charlize Theron), who is only conscious for a few hours a night, reminds him he can never be out past nightfall due to a curse that will endanger him; he can’t stay out even if he wants to visit his father, a late warrior’s, grave.  

So of course Kubo stays out past nightfall to visit his father’s grave. He is pursued by his mother’s Sisters, two creepy witches who resemble scarecrows and wear Japanese Noh masks (voiced with startling effect by Rooney Mara). They are hunting him to claim his second eye so that Kubo’s grandfather can use it to cure his own blindness. After narrow escape, Kubo embarks on a journey to finally stand up to his grandfather by reclaiming three legendary pieces of armor. He is joined by a reliable snow monkey (Theron) and a bumbling amnesiac human-sized beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey and his signature drawl) in their whiplash-paced quest.

The oddness (sometimes absurdity) of the story adds to its charm, like some of the movie’s beautiful visuals that sear into the memory. Laika has always crafted good stories with moral centers, but stop-motion visuals are definitely their strong point. There’s a scene when townsfolk release lit candles along a river to mourn the dead, and the sky fades to night as the candles flow, beautifully illuminating the screen. Every piece of the Monkey’s fur blows as snowflakes fly past her, adding a lush texture to the screen. Sometimes characters or objects skip a frame in their movement, choppily jumping across the screen, most likely a purposeful effect to add to the charm. The clay character models are propped in front of a CGI backdrop with animated facial expressions, creating a pleasing contrast.

The story is perhaps less memorable, though understandably so for a movie intended for a younger audience. The screenplay is an original by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler that draws heavily from Japanese inspiration, though tends to be a little formulaic. The plot is essentially spelled out by Kubo’s origami puppetry with the opening minutes; there’s three pieces of armor, and a hero must overcome challenges to collect them. While the plot points themselves may be predictable for older viewers, what’s really surprising is the faith the movie has in its younger audience. The movie tackles difficult themes essential to growing up, such as the loss of a loved one and learning to let go and move on. These themes culminate in the film’s ending, trusting its young audience to understand and appreciate the positive and negative sides of gaining closure. The movie imparts valuable life lessons that make Kubo just as much a hero on screen as he is to parents in the audience.

The banter between Theron and McConaughey’s animalistic counterparts is intended purely for the youngsters in the audience, however. (“More like Sword Uncomfortable,” McConaughey’s beetle mumbles after sleeping on one of the ancient pieces of armor, deemed Sword Unbreakable.) Until the heartfelt climax, there are moments where the focus on younger humor distracts from the lush imagination rampart in other areas of the movie. As a movie for kids, though, Kubo is a hit. Older viewers may find themselves jealous they weren’t able to grow up with Kubo’s journey.

Just like Laika’s predecessors, the film is packed with inspiration to bring these clay models to life. During the credits, a behind-the-camera scene shows the creation of one of the clay monsters, larger than some of the people working on it. The model is suspended by levers that can be moved to change its position, and the sheer complexity going into filming this one scene is evident. This is the kind of inspiration the movie is packed with.