Laika Studios has in recent years become the sole studio dedicated to the preservation of stop-motion animation as an art form, and the production of films that showcase this unique style in all its glory. They deserve kudos for that noble cause, and the singular filmography they’ve produced thus far, which includes Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, films of varying quality but boundless storytelling creativity and visual beauty, two things that aren’t often seen in most American animation these days, which is quite frequently the same old, same old. The studios have gotten good at churning out that CGI product, but let’s be honest with ourselves- doesn’t it all start to blend and look similar in ways that the old traditional 2D style never did?
Kubo and the Two Strings is the fourth entry in the Laika catalog, and probably their best yet. It’s a stirring, spiritual adventure of a young boy’s quest to affirm his family lineage and let go of the ghosts of his past, and not only does it not look like the typical animated product, but the story is a sensitive, mature, and even profound dive into learning how to let go and claim your own destiny aside from the one set out for you at birth. This is a fantasy set in ancient Japan, where a young boy named Kubo must deal with the anguish brought about by his mother’s tragic past, a past that has rendered her untethered to reality as she drifts in and out of a lucid state in which she only occasionally recognizes her son and remembers his father.
Kubo has all kinds of questions about his late father, who was a warrior, and his mother, who descends from a magic realm of otherworldly beings ruled by the Moon King, also known as Kubo’s evil grandfather who stops at nothing to regain control of his traitorous daughter who deserted her kingdom with her newborn son in tow. For now Kubo remains safely hidden in a rural village where he entertains patrons with his tall tales of the Moon King and flying origami figures, but soon that changes, and he embarks on a quest to defeat his grandfather, his two evil aunts and reclaim control of his life. That adventure comes complete with comic relief sidekicks of course, one in the form of a toy monkey come to life (voiced by Charlize Theron), and another of a human sized beetle with memory loss (Matthew McConaughey). Those two companions come with secrets of their own that must be unraveled, while the story plays itself out as essentially one of Kubo’s riveting tales, in which he stars as the hero.
In some ways this is a formula story, but in others there is a deep emotion at its core that cuts to a longing within every child to know who their parents are and where they come from. And unlike other kids movies, this one does not shy away from genuine loss in favor of a pat happy ending that pretends everything can work itself out too perfectly. The film is a visual splendor, with bold, striking colors and several underwater environments that stand out as a majestic celebration of detail. Sadly, it’s still a bit distracting, at least to me, that the movie takes pains to steep itself in Japanese culture and be about Japanese characters, yet the leads are all voiced by white actors in the continued whitewashing tradition of Hollywood. Meanwhile, George Takei cameos as an extra in a crowd scene while Ralph Fiennes voices the Moon King, and you end up asking yourself…why is it that George Takei couldn’t play that crucial role, exactly? You might say what does it really matter in terms of voice acting, but ask yourself if white actors would ever be brought in to play the leads in an animated film about African-American characters. I don’t think I’m off base in thinking other minorities shouldn’t have to be whitewashed either.
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