Four-for-four and every-mutable, Laika will never master the box office (good thing they have a trust fund kid at their helm), but they’re the first serious challenge to Pixar’s recently abandoned throne in the Western animation market. Having wrung their kiddie-Halloween aesthetic dry over three films varying from exceptional (Coraline) to inspired but simplistic (The Boxtrolls, prompting claims that they were running out of steam), Kubo and the Two Strings is the offspring of a seemingly dramatic sea change in the company. At some level the most self-consciously mature of their offerings thus far, Kubo is also undoubtedly the company’s most luminescent at the formal level. There are strains; the tepid narrative literalism of most animated features is present and, if anything, only exacerbated by the fidelity evident in the rest of the film. But even if Kubo was merely ancillary to the realization that Laika still has gas left in them, the flaws would be forgivable at worst and downright invisible at best. Oh yeah, and the film is also frequently stupendous, so there’s that box to tick too.
On literalism, Kubo is almost endearingly obvious in its metaphorical nature. Personally, I’ve had enough “it’s a story about storytelling” fantasy metaphors for a century (I’m still reeling from the fallout of Crimson Peak’s negligent screenplay last year), but it’s testament enough to Kubo that it works in spite of its failings. Early on, the film casts away young lute-warrior (as in singer/storyteller, but adamantly not James Taylor) Kubo (Art Parkinson) to a realm of mystery, terror, and possibility when his mother and entire village are disarmed by the mother’s two sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara, a dissonant choice matching the phantom-esque, disconcerting anonymity of the characters’ appearance). The villainous siblings now seeking Kubo’s trail to do away with him as well, Kubo is tasked with locating three mystical objects that can … well, you see where this is going. Admittedly, to its credit, Kubo blends in a cantankerous talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and a beetle-warrior (a cheerily unawares Matthew McConaughey) who could be called Mifune-esque (as in Toshiro) for flavor.
Naturally, the film actually begins with a prelude, a diegetic mini-story from Kubo, wooing the town’s folk in awe with his seemingly magical origami skills, crafting paper-craft beings that flexibly scurry about, clash, entertain, and carry the weight of the past on their backs by expressing memories of the dearly departed (in this case, Kubo’s father, a warrior named Hanzo). Obviously, and not always to the film’s benefit, the film is itself a representation of Kubo channeling his emotional turmoil and grief through the iron-clad crux of a story, and Kubo doubles as a proxy for Laika, themselves storytellers with the weight of the past on the mind. Narrativizing becomes no mere afterthought or assumption, but a moral quotient and a wellspring of memory that also pacifies or mediates worry by categorizing anxieties and tying the often disparate strands of a harried world together into easily relatable linear narratives.
So Kubo courts a sometimes-trivializing earnestness that can lapse into saccharine, but the film is also thornily unafraid to walk through the brambles of consequence and stick itself. Death is a fact in Kubo; rather than eliding pain, the film reconstructs it, channels it, through alternate frameworks for life and death where the spiritual and the material – and the dead and the live – are in some ways fundamentally interrelated. Rapt with its own metaphysical potential, Kubo paradoxically musters the materiality of its animation to comment on how what is “real” may not always be materially present or verifiably concrete. Better still, the script by Marc Haines and Chris Butler mostly manages to drift past the obvious Orientalist concern about applying Eastern ideas to a Western construct. Although there are necessarily limits, Kubo introduces Eastern ideas of life, death, and togetherness without eliding their real-world implications and the social motivation implicit within them.
Which is well and good, but Kubo is first and foremost a work of form and space, a geometric aria that tackles the dissolution of parental health and the bonds of Kubo’s surrogate family through inescapably alluring cinematic form. I’ll spot the film its narrative since it compensates with a rhapsody of color, kinesis, sound, form, and shape, the building blocks of cinema. Enticingly, Laika’s own roux of proudly aged, shopworn stop-motion craft for moving characters and modernist part-CG backgrounds is itself an incarnation of the melding of the past and the present that encapsulates the theme of the film. The stop-motion buttresses the Eastern-grafted design work with a corporeal tactility, steel-plating the fable in a sense of material worth that evokes the magical puppetry Kubo practices and suggests the way that the dead live on not only in memories but in the material facts of the world. Indeed, historically, many cultures would consider memories to be a physical material in and of itself, dissolving the dichotomy between the mental/spiritual and the physical.
The look is fluid and dexterous enough to achieve the ethereal quality of gossamer fabric, but not without the admirably jerky otherworldliness afforded uniquely to the innately stop-start nature of the stop-motion realm, paying homage to the pre-cinematic theater and puppet-craft that in some ways augured the rise of cinema in the first place. From the frostbitten melancholy of a snow-drenched mountain to the Harryhausen-esque pulp of a giant skeleton fight, Kubo, like Laika, is never in a state of arrested evolution, never ceding ground to the authority of paralysis. Expediently brushing off explanation to glide between spaces and moments with a sense of fable-like intuition rather than endless exposition, the directorial debut of company founder Travis Knight is more than merely indescribably beautiful. Exceptions aside, it’s also a pocket wonder.