From the shadowy firelit night that haunts all humans, from the deep old places that refuse to be properly ‘civilized,’ comes a voice. “If you must blink, do it now,” the story teller warns. Lightning flashes and we see a razor thin boat slicing through the trembling fabric of a stormy sea “Pay careful attention to everything you see, no matter how strange.” A monstrous wave swells upwards, threatening to dash the paper boat against the ocean floor itself. “For if you look away, for even an instant, our hero will surely perish.”
So opens Kubo and the Two Strings, and it’s advice to take seriously. Kubo, Laika Entertainment’s fourth stop-motion animated production, is an incredible balancing act. The movie is by far the studio’s most ambitious production yet, but it’s also their simplest story to date. It leverages more technological muscles than almost any movie produced this year, while evoking the same primitive part of us that once sat around the campfire before the dawn of written history.
In short: Kubo is without question the most beautiful animated movie of the year (and possibly the most beautiful movie period) but since it is such a pure example of the Hero’s Journey, the oldest and most well known proto-myth ever, it threatens to be forgotten in the face of complex, fleshed out narratives of movies like Zootopia or Finding Dory.
Kubo’s titular character grows up caring for his mother in a cave just outside a small fishing village. Every day at dawn he goes into the village and earns money by telling fantastic stories of Hanzo, his magic armor, and the eternal struggle against the Moonking. As fantastic aids to his captivating stories, Kubo uses his magic to give life to impossibly intricate origami figurines.
It’s a pretty good life, with the one requirement that he return to the cave before dark. For if (and when) moonlight touches him, his grandfather, the Moonking himself, can find him. Not content with the one eye that he has already stolen from Kubo, the Moonking will stop at nothing to steal Kubo’s other eye. As in all stories, Kubo breaks the one taboo (though it’s kind of an accident this time) and his mother uses the last of her magic to send Kubo away and animate the Mr. Monkey charm that he propetenens at all time. With the help of the animate charm Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) an amnesiatic samurai cursed with an insectoid form, Kubo must seek out the pieces of his father’s armory so that he can defend himself against the scheme of the Moonking.
First, the indisputable. Kubo is gorgeous. There is so much attention and craft poured into every frame of this film that it almost seems to overflow out of the screen and into the theater. Many famous directors, animators, and editors might claim to labor over every frame, but by the sure limitations of the media, few of them can truthfully claim to have the same intimacy with each individual frame as the animators of Laika.
Kubo is a stop motion animated picture, meaning that the characters that you see leaping around the screen are incredibly detailed, hand crafted figures that were delicately, precisely posed, photographed and reposed, changed imperceptibly from how they were before. To say this process is laborious would be a grand understatement. One second of the final product could very well be the product of dozens of meticulous hours of work. The sheer number of details they include is absolutely mind boggling. In a couple of scenes we can see the feathery fur of Monkey trembling in arctic winds and savage storms. It is so easy to just not even notice what must have been a major technical headache when you’re lost in the film.
Ancient crafting techniques, cutting edge 3D printing technology, uber precision machining and careful computer animation have been combined by Laika so that literally any frame of this movie would be worth hanging in a museum.
If Kubo could have married its on screen beauty with the narrative flesh of say, Zootopia or Toy Story 3, it could very well be in the running for best film of the year. However, the honest truth is that it hasn’t. The story that Kubo tells is a good story. It’s just a simple one. And it breaks the modern cardinal sin of screenwriting: it lets the audience get ahead of the story. It doesn’t take much precognitive ability to foresee the twists that Kubo weaves. And then, no matter how well they are done, the twists rather lack the impact of a proper surprise.
Kubo is a very well done retelling of the ubiquitous hero’s journey. And some might hold that against it. However, I believe this is completely the wrong way to depart from the story. Kubo, for all its technological complexity, is a modern link to the ancient oral traditions that we aren’t exposed enough to any more. Kubo as character and narrator is a master storyteller, not a clever author or savvy studio-exec, he and his movie call us back to the wizened story mongers, dramaturgs and bards that bore us through history with their tale, foraged those archetypes we call cliche and flat for the first time from their imaginations, and entrapped, entertained, and instructed us for uncounted generations.
If the sole purpose of a review is simply to persuade or dissuade you to see a movie, let me be forthwith: see Kubo and the Two Strings. If you would take but a small amount of advice beyond that, find the biggest screen you can and see it in 3D, it is worth it, and then afterwards find the old storytellers and reconnect with those simple and ancient traditions Kubo reminds us of.