The Animation Corner: “Kubo and the Two Strings”


Imagine taking a photograph. Move your leg an inch. Snap another photo. Another inch; another photo. Now repeat until you’ve walked from where you’re standing to Ed’s Café. It would be excruciating (but worth it to the average caffeine-deprived college student). Now imagine creating a 100-minute film this way. Most people’s reactions would be similar to being told to write a 15-page paper on the green light symbolism in “The Great Gatsby”.

But Laika—“Coraline” (2009); “The Boxtrolls” (2014)—not only relishes in the challenge; it sets a new standard in the world of stop-motion entertainment.

“Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016) opens with the voice of Kubo (Art Parkinson) telling the audience: “If you must blink, do it now.” And in the space of one blink, the audience is transported to a stormy sea. Kubo as a baby—his mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron; “Monster”) clinging to him while desperately keeping their flimsy boat afloat. A tremendous wave towers over the heroes. A flick of her wrist with her bachi strums the strings of her shamisen and a burst of blue magical energy parts the seas. Another wave creeps behind and engulfs the boat, swirling mother and son in its watery depths until it releases them, washing them ashore.

Describing the visuals of “Kubo” does not do the film justice for the animation’s mesmerizing effect. The fluidity of the movement, detailed textures, illuminated colors—for long periods they made me forget that I was watching a stop-motion feature. What makes it even more impressive is that there were so many locations used. I told a couple people afterwards that I thought the film lacked “world building”, but now I believe I was mistaken. What it lacks is a sense of distance.

In “Kubo”, the titular character (12-ish years after the opening) embarks on a quest to find his father’s magical armor to save his village and defend himself against the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes: “Harry Potter”). The film has a “Finding Nemo” vibe in the way it jumps locations. But what the latter does better is give concrete starting/ending destinations and make time a tangible element. “Kubo” allows the characters to wander around until they reach wherever they’re supposed to be.

But personally, it’s a pretty negligible complaint for a film that would probably win Best Animated Feature in this year’s Academy Awards if not for Disney’s “Zootopia.” There is a furious (well, more like passive interest) debate among movie buffs whether stop-motion is worth the time and effort anymore in the world where CGI reigns supreme. “Kubo” might have single-handedly put those questions to rest. “Kubo” utilized innovative robotic technology and 3-D printing, and was such a visual and emotional masterpiece, that I doubt stop-motion is going away anytime soon.

For anybody who loves animation, “Kubo” is well worth the viewing. It’s an artistic achievement wrapped in a dark fairy tale, and has soared to the top of my list of all-time favorite animated movies.


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