If you must blink, do it now.
These striking words open perhaps the most engaging, heartfelt, well-animated film of the year, Kubo and the Two Strings. The fourth feature film from animation studio Laika is a stop-motion marvel.
Kubo and the Two Strings follows a young boy named Kubo, who has a magical shamisen that can craft and control paper into living, moving origami shapes. He lives with and cares for his mother, who struggles with memory after a head injury. When forces from his past pursue him, he journeys with a monkey and samurai in search of a means of saving what remains of his family.
I went into the film mostly blind, having only seen a trailer sometime in the past year. All I really knew was that it was about a boy with a magical guitar. Yet, as a fan of the previous works of Laika and a general fan of animation, I was comfortable having no preconceptions.
One of the first things that struck me about the movie was the beauty of its animation. The visuals are wonderful, like a storybook or painting in motion. Throughout it all, I couldn’t believe that the characters were static models on a film set, their movements the result of thousands of pictures taken with the figures only moved a fraction of an inch between shots. This isn’t your Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer stop-motion animation.
No offense, Cornelius.
Character movements are fluid and the models were highly expressive. A mid-credits clip shows all the effort it took to create mere seconds of film.
With music such an integral part of the story’s premise, the soundtrack is strong and engrossing. A shamisen is featured prominently, as one might expect, and it is energetic and driving. The score really shines during the quieter, more introspective parts of the film, though the action scenes have great music as well. The credits also feature a wonderful rendition of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ by Regina Spektor.
Still, regardless of the high quality of the animation and music, the story must be engaging. Thankfully, the story lives up to the strength of the visuals and score, and is captivating and heartfelt. The movie deals with loss, memory, growing up, and family in a mature manner, escaping many of the pitfalls of other children’s films.
Speaking of children’s animated films, I feel like Kubo and the Two Strings is just as engaging for adults as for kids. The humor is subtle and the story elements are introduced organically, instead of being info-dumped right at the beginning. I loved the world-building and wish the film was longer, so that it could more fully explore the backstory and the beautiful world created for the story.
Yet, it feels like that is one of the main points of the film, that, in life, we can’t know everything, that life and time are short. It is stressed several times that “memory is the strongest magic of all.” Even though loved ones may be gone, or life is not what is used to be, the people we love and the experiences that are meaningful to us are still with us. Just like in life, not everything ends happily in the film.
Some parts of the film really hit me and I couldn’t help but tear up. In one of the first scenes, Kubo takes care of his mentally-struggling mother. He feeds her while she sits with a vacant expression, mechanically eating and never speaking. She spends the rest of the day looking out at the sea, unmoving. In another scene, she is much more engaged, and theatrically tells Kubo a story about his father. At the story’s climax, she struggles to remember what happens next.
I have a grandfather who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The next day after watching the movie, I fed him in the same way at his assisted living center, as he is becoming more unable to feed himself. He forgot who I was more than a year ago, and can no longer communicate a clear thought. The movie’s strong emphasis on the importance of memory reminded me of my grandfather, and how sad it is watching him lose his memories and lose parts of himself. Still, as with the movie, I will always have my happy memories of him from before the terrible disease affected him.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a marvel of stop-motion animation and the best Laika film to date. It is equal lengths grand journey and a self-contained tale about family, communicating some difficult topics to children in a thoughtful manner. For any fan of animation, I cannot recommend this film highly enough.