"If you must blink, do it now."
So begins the gripping and gorgeous story of Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest film from the Oregon-based stop-motion animation studio Laika and an early comer for the best animated film of the year (and one of the best films of the year, period). A quintessential hero’s journey set in a dreamy, folkloric Japan, Kubo is a story about stories, told with a sophistication that never gets in the way of its straightforward earnestness or its stunning visuals.
It’s also fully self-aware: The film knows that blinking is the last thing you’ll want to do while watching it.
Kubo and the Two Strings is the story of a young boy, Kubo (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Rickon Stark, Art Parkinson), who has a very special ability: the powerful inherited gift of magic-infused storytelling.
The stories Kubo weaves for the spellbound audience in his small village and the magic he culls by playing his three-stringed shamisen are wondrous, but Kubo knows little about the extent of his powers. Instead, he spends most of his time caring for his convalescent mother, who never fully recovered from the death of Kubo’s father years ago, in an accident that cost Kubo one of his eyes.
Kubo doesn’t know what parts of the stories his mother tells him of his past, and of his mysterious family origins, are real — or why she insists that he never be caught outside of their tiny house after sundown. Soon he finds himself being pursued by his grandfather, the sinister Moon King, and his malevolent aunts, who slink through the sky like white-faced kabuki ghosts.
To help him escape, his mother awakens the magic of a charmed snow monkey (Charlize Theron) and sends him on a journey to find a magical suit of armor that once belonged to his samurai father. A giant talking beetle, voiced by Matthew McConaughey of all people, is a surprisingly endearing, if mostly useless, addition to their troupe.
But this is just the superficial quest. The real quest, the heart of Kubo’s journey, is a search for family, and perhaps even more, to find the truth behind every story. In this way, as well as in its nods to legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, Kubo is a Rashomon for the whole family: a tale that examines its own multiplicity and gently reminds us that every story looks different depending on who’s telling it.
Laika has gained a cult following over the past decade for its painstakingly wrought stop-motion animation and the vivid storytelling of its popular films Coraline and ParaNorman (and its less popular, but still excellent, The Boxtrolls). The studio's CEO, Travis Knight, who served as lead animator for those films, makes his directorial debut with Kubo, working with a story by longtime industry artist Shannon Tindle and a script by Marc Haimes and ParaNorman writer Chris Butler.
Knight’s direction lends a fluid grace to Kubo’s story, which weaves seamlessly back and forth between magical realism and pure fantasy. Under his deft touch, feudal Japan comes to life in bold strokes of color and light.
But the stellar achievement of Kubo is the animation itself. Kubo took five years for the studio to perfect; animators and sculptors essentially handcrafted the film’s universe from scratch. Featuring intricate set design and a coterie of puppets, including the largest stop-motion puppet ever built, and a mix of old and new technology, Kubo feels vivid and alive. Shadows have teeth and pulse with raw danger. The gilded armor Kubo seeks sparkles and glitters like jewelry you could touch. An underwater sequence featuring an eerie eyeball garden is as unnerving as it is rich with beauty.
Kubo, perhaps more than any other animated film in the Western canon, has infused emotion into the animation itself. The yearning, the desire for connection, that drives Kubo on his journey is almost palpable in the somber, gorgeous sweep of deep hues that cover his village during the annual lighting of the floating lanterns, a real ceremony for the dead still practiced today in Japan.
Dario Marianelli’s lavish, light score echoes the emotive properties of the art, doing its best to channel the refined aesthetic of Hayao Miyazaki’s longtime collaborator, composer Joe Hisaishi, without ever losing the dynamic, lively sensibility of a Kurosawa samurai epic.
Knight has called Kubo a "Kurosawa myth in miniature," and there’s hardly a better way to describe how the film invokes heroic samurai tales of yore, even as it leaves you wondering what real truths lie behind Kubo’s quest. In this film, it’s easier to make origami folding paper take flight, easier to conquer a terrifying giant, than it is to make sense of familial loss and dysfunction.
In its quieter moments, Kubo owes almost as much to legendary Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu, whose postwar anxieties expressed themselves through the silences that exist between mother and son, father and daughter. Kubo’s lush silences, too, often speak louder than its script.
However, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that the primary creative team around Kubo isn’t Japanese. This is partly because the story itself feels fundamentally driven by Kurosawa’s own cultural borrowing of shoot-'em-up Westerns for its plot conflicts and character dynamics.
It’s also because the main voice cast consists mostly of famed white celebrities; the fourth-wall-breaking interjection of George Takei’s most famous catchphrase mostly just serves to distract from the story and highlight what small roles he and the other Japanese actors in the cast have.
This is a shame, not only because of the missed opportunity for a more authentic voice cast but because the film’s characterizations, in comparison to the sumptuous artistry of the rest of its elements, are Kubo’s weakest point.
We know almost as little about Kubo and his family at the end of our journey as we did when we started. Kubo’s mother is wholly defined through her relationship to each of the men in her life, while her two terrifying sisters are essentially puppets for their father’s will. Kubo himself is as much a typical boy as you could expect from a paper-bending, magical lute–playing genius — but we’re never really sure, in the end, how he’s grown from his adventure.
Of course, Kubo and the Two Strings is beautiful enough, and the story compelling enough, that such complaints feel like quibbling. Laika has once again set a new standard for animation, particularly for the blending of CGI and more traditional stop-motion animated effects. The result is a sumptuous array of visual delights, enough to do justice to traditional tales of knights in shining armor, runaway princesses, lost boys, and talking monkeys.
Whether or not you leave the theater believing in Kubo’s story, you’ll surely wind up believing, as Kubo does, that a world without myriad stories — not to mention a world without myriad animation styles — is no world to live in at all.