“Zootopia” looked like the top Animated Feature Oscar favorite for 2016 until LAIKA Studios released “Kubo and the Two Strings” this week. LAIKA specializes in stop-motion animation, a time-consuming, handcrafted art that produces 4.3 seconds of footage after one week of filming! (To glimpse the process, watch the end credits for time lapse footage of work on a key monster.)
Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a Japanese boy who entertains local villagers with stories, music and magic origami figures. His mother spends most of her time in a daze due to a blow to the head she suffered during a sea storm. As an infant, Kubo’s left eye was stolen by his evil grandfather, the Moon King. In her lucid moments, his mother warns Kubo to be home before dark, to always wear his deceased samurai father’s robe, and to carry a monkey charm. She says Kubo’s vengeful aunts and grandfather still hope to blind him.
Kubo follows her advice until the Obon Festival, a time when the villagers honor dead loved ones. He hopes to contact his father’s spirit. When darkness falls, Kubo’s aunts appear, resembling witches with feathered capes. They pursue the boy, destroying the village and only stopping when Kubo’s mother gives him magic to escape while bravely sacrificing herself.
Kubo then begins a quest to find his father’s protective armor, sword and helmet. Accompanying him are the serious, but loving, Monkey (voice of Charlize Theron) and Kubo’s samurai origami figure. They’re joined by Beetle (voice of Matthew McConaughey), a warrior trapped in the body of an insect due to a curse. As they journey through a variety of lands, Kubo and his companions must recognize each other’s strengths and value.
“Kubo” is directed by Travis Knight, LAIKA’s CEO. Lead animators Jason Stalman and Malcolm Lamont have overseen visually spectacular work. Elements that make stop-motion unique – for example, the use of real fabrics and textured materials- are fully on display. The movement of characters’ underlying armatured skeletons is flawless. Especially watch the flying of a monster Dragon Fish and a beautifully sculpted bird. Most impressive of all is the creation of Kubo’s origami. It truly is movie magic to make sheets of paper appear to become intricate figures.
Rated PG, the storyline of “Kubo” is not suited for children under age 8. Marc Haimes and Chris Butler’s screenplay takes a sophisticated look at life, death, and immortality. The tale resembles original Grimm’s fairytales (very different from Disney fairytales), with death always nearby. LAIKA’s films have all included dark, “scary story” aspects: “Coraline” (2009) features a young girl who must escape kidnapping; “ParaNorman” (2012) stars a boy who battles zombies; “The Boxtrolls” (2014) deals with prejudice and genocide. The monsters and afterlife reflections in “Kubo” continue the studio’s focus.
George Harrison’s song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” plays during the end credits. The lyrics, performed by Regina Spektor, mirror elements of the film’s plot and provide a fitting conclusion to this impressive stop-motion adventure.