Kubo and the Two Strings was, to me, an incredibly pleasant surprise. I knew very little about it before seeing the film, other than the fact that it was produced by Laika, a stop-motion studio whose other films include Coraline and Paranorman. Honestly, I was a little bit turned off by the idea of seeing a Laika film, because both Coraline and Paranorman had creepy Tim Burton-ish streak that I found unappealing. But I went and saw it anyway, largely because Michelle encouraged me too. And Kubo blew me away.
I walked out of the theater stunned, because I didn’t have the words to describe how incredibly wonderful the movie was. I’m writing this post two weeks after seeing the movie because I couldn’t figure out how to explain just how good it is. I’m going to say right here that this post will contain minor spoilers for Kubo and that if you haven’t seen it you should, it will be worth your while.
The first thing that shocked me when watching Kubo was how tonally different it was from Coraline- the only other Laika film I had seen. Coraline scared me half to death and was disturbing. Kubo and the Two Strings isn’t eerie. It is delicate and heart-wrenching. The first scene of the movie is incredibly cinematic and epic, but also . Kubo’s mother is simultaneously scared and strong. And I think that the contrast between tenderness and grit are what makes this movie. Kubo, the principal character is a poet. He’s not a warrior. He’s incredibly gifted, but he’s not one to seek out adventure. The first ten or so minutes illustrate this, as Kubo gently takes care of his very sick mother. He determinedly stands by her, even though caring for her makes it impossible for him to live a normal life with the rest of the village. This beginning demonstrated Kubo’s strength of character and resolve. And so Kubo becomes this complex blend of resolution and compassion, which becomes so instrumental later on in the film.
The contrast between tenderness and grit are what makes this movie.
The treatment of character is done incredibly well, with believable development and evolution in the principle characters. The characterization is communicated through everything from the literal design of the puppets to the script and voice acting, to the sound design. I’d like to take a moment here to point out the incredible treatment of monkey in the film. Monkey, who’d I’d assumed from all promotional material to be a boy, is a girl. This is important, mostly because we are used to seeing anthropomorphized female animals being “girlified.” That is- animal characters who are also girls are designed in a way so there is no mistaking that they are a girl. I’m not here to debate whether or not that is a valid design choice, but I’ve always felt that “girlifying” detracts from the realism of animal characters because of all the added eyelashes, among other things. Monkey was an incredibly powerful character in that she was maternal and feminine without being overt about it.
Laika crafted a plot that equally matched its wonderful characters. At its heart, Kubo is an adventure story, told by a storyteller. It is epic in the purest sense of the word, but full of important quiet moments that give you time to reflect. The dynamics of Kubo’s world change rapidly, and I was legitimately scared that he would come to harm on multiple occasions. The plot also gracefully manages to incorporate large quantities of Japanese folklore without being disrespectful or in-your-face. The ending was also unexpected and incredibly fulfilling- exploring the idea of a blank slate.
Stop-motion animation allows for a level of grittiness, tangibility, and weight that you can’t get with other types of animation.
I think another reason for Kubo‘s success is it’s brilliant use of medium. Stop-motion animation allows for a level of grittiness, tangibility, and weight that you can’t get with other types of animation. The use of puppets and rigging gives a sense of ‘irl’ physics and presence. It’s hard to describe, but if you’ve seen the film you know what I’m talking about. As someone who has experimented with stop-motion before, I have a tremendous respect and appreciation for the number of hours and attention to detail that went into this film. If you’d like an idea take a look at this video:
In summary, Kubo and the Two Strings is PHENOMENAL. It is by far the best animated film, if not the best film I’ve seen all year. It is just as good and emotionally powerful as the likes of Spirited Away and Up. Go see it, you won’t regret it.
PS- we have the song from the closing credits “While my guitar gently weeps” in our September playlist. It’s in the sidebar >>> if you haven’t had the chance to check it out yet.