Ten years after breaking onto the scene with Coraline, Laika, an independent studio based in Portland, Oregon, is back with another stop-motion gem. It’s been a strong year for animation thus far—Disney Animation’s Zootopia and Pixar’s Finding Dory stand out. But it’s Kubo and the Two Strings, a fable about a young boy in ancient Japan, that stands tallest.
Visually stunning and emotionally powerful, Kubo is everything you want in an animated movie. From its quirky cast of characters to its dazzling style, Laika’s latest is an artistic and storytelling triumph. With the market being overrun with 3D animation—I’m not complaining—Kubo proves that the 100-year-old art form of stop-motion is very much alive.
Frankly, you shouldn’t be surprised. Laika’s previous three films—Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Box Trolls—were assured, confident, and endlessly creative, and Kubo and the Two Strings shows the studio is only getting better. Utilizing expressive stop-motion with flourishes of digital effects, Kubo is an absolutely gorgeous film that proves the artists at Laika are masters of their craft.
It begins with a young mother on the run against the backdrop of a raging sea; a full, blinding moon looms in the night sky with an evil, threatening presence. With a magical strum of a shamisen—a traditional Japanese three-stringed lute—she parts an oncoming wave and escapes to a tiny village with her infant son, Kubo (Art Parkinson). But she and Kubo, whose left eye has been damaged beyond repair, don’t escape unscathed.
When we time jump forward, Kubo, now a rambunctious young boy, is seen delighting the town’s residents with folktales about a heroic samurai named Hanzo. “If you must blink, do it now,” Kubo’s stories begin. It’s something we hear a few different times during the film, a phrase that’s both significant to the stories Kubo tells and the endlessly entertaining spectacle on display. Laika has shown a flair for giving soul to its animation, and Kubo is yet another example of the studio’s ability to breath life into its tiny creations.
As Kubo strums his mother’s enchanted shamisen, pieces of origami paper flutter and dance into impressively intricate characters that perform the tales he’s sharing—much like Laika’s artists do with the characters in its movies. His orations about Hanzo turn out to be more than just stories, as Kubo’s mother reveals; Hanzo, it turns out, was actually the boy’s father, who was felled by Kubo’s grandfather, also known as the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).
Kubo’s mother soon tells him that he must not go outside at night for fear the Moon King will discover where they’ve been hiding. Why does he want to know where they are? It’s complicated but the basic gist is that he wants to take Kubo’s other eye (the significance of which we learn at the movie’s end).
The young boy soon stays out past nightfall and is immediately confronted by The Sisters (Rooney Mara), a pair of mask-wearing samurai warriors who do the Moon King’s evil bidding. But before they swoop Kubo away, his mother uses the last of her magic to save him, sending him on a journey in search of a special suit of armor. When Kubo awakens, he finds himself being helped by a snow monkey named, well, Monkey (Charlize Theron).
Kubo and Monkey soon cross paths with Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a former samurai who has an unreliable memory. Their journey takes them to some amazing locations, including a cave protected by a giant skeleton and a sea filled with hypnotizing eyeballs. Kids will delight in these moments, especially when the three characters encounter the giant skeleton, which is one of the most imaginative and entertaining battles I’ve ever seen in an animated movie.
Having grown up in the 90s, these encounters immediately reminded of the action-adventure games I spent hours playing as a kid, in particular, Zelda: Ocarina of Time; the young boy on an epic journey, the quirky characters he meets along the way, the spectacular boss battles. All of this looks incredible in 3D, too, bringing every vivid detail to life.
But it’s not just the visuals that make Kubo and the Two Strings such a powerful film. As Laika continues to perfect the art form of stop-motion, the studio’s ability to tell a compelling story is where its talents really lie. On the surface, Kubo is a simple hero’s journey that takes place in feudal Japan. Look deeper, however, and Kubo is a film about memory, loss, and grief.
Laika has always told unexpectedly sophisticated stories without pandering to children, and Kubo is a shining example of just how honed this skill has become. For all its beauty and joy, the film is never afraid to tackle more complex emotions, and when the showdown between Kubo and the Moon King finally comes, Laika handles the resolution with such humanity it’s impossible not to stand up and cheer.
Kubo and the Two Strings hits theaters on Aug. 19.