When writing about stop motion animated movies, it’s probably customary to bash out a few words about the way CGI has pushed older techniques to the fringes; how the hand-crafted aesthetics of stop-motion no longer seem to reach mass audiences in the way enjoyed by movies like Finding Dory, Minions or Zootropolis, with all their colour and digital slickness.
What’s interesting about animation studio Laika, however, is that it doesn’t stick slavishly to the traditions of stop motion filmmaking. In movies like Coraline, Paranorman and Box Trolls, it’s continually used cutting-edge technology like 3D printing and, yes, CGI to bring its stories to life. This is particularly true in Kubo And The Two Strings, an effervescent action fantasy which reads like an unexpectedly eccentric fusion of Alice In Wonderland and Japanese chanbara movie.
Here, CGI waves splash onto the shore of a delicately hand-crafted miniature set; huge monsters are animated by hand, but then computers are used to matte out the rigs used to hold them aloft. The result is a movie with the tactile quality of stop motion with the scale and crystalline quality of a CGI film.
Art Parkinson provides the voice of Kubo, a young boy who lives on a tiny Japanese island with his mother, Sariatu (Charlize Theron). On the face of it, Kubo has plenty to feel glum about; his mother can barely look after herself and has a tendency to confuse dreams and reality. While still a baby, Kubo had his left eye plucked out by his maniacal grandfather, the Moon King. Whisked from danger by his terrified mother and rowed across the sea to safety one stormy night, Kubo now lives in a cave far beyond the Moon King’s reach.
Now aged about 10, Kubo earns money by entertaining the local village with his extraordinary storytelling abilities. As he strums away on his shamisen, Kubo magically brings origami figures to life, and uses them to create his own little animated movies in the dust of the village square. Kubo’s audience of locals lap up his stories of brave warriors and monsters, but try as he might, the boy can’t quite get to the end of the tale.
Maybe it’s because his own story is so full of blanks: why does his mother, in her more lucid moments, warn Kubo to return home before nightfall? What caused the huge rift in Kubo’s family years before? Adventure soon comes calling, and Kubo finds himself in a dream-like realm with a giant beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) and a Japanese macaque (Theron again) as his unlikely allies.
Directed with real charm and elegance by Travis Knight, Kubo And The Two Strings looks and sounds thoroughly captivating from its opening shot of a boat journeying across a roiling sea. There’s an exquisite level of detail in every surface and object, from the little ivory monkey figure Kubo keeps with him to the traditional paintings caressed onto the wooden doors of a traditional Japanese house. The way squares of paper fold themselves into samurai warriors, sea creatures and boats is also a lovely piece of animated slight-of-hand.
While the story of a magical boy, a monkey and a giant insect might sound like pure whimsy, Kubo And The Two Strings is also surprisingly sharp around the edges – even compared to Laika’s playfully macabre zombie horror animation, Paranorman. There are sword battles and action sequences here that pack a gutsy punch, and some very young viewers might find some scenes of the supernatural a little too nightmarish for comfort. Laika have never shied away from the quirky and the gently disturbing – those characters with button eyes in Coraline still make us shudder – but Kubo may just be the studio’s most eccentric piece of filmmaking so far.
For the most part, that eccentricity plays in the movie’s favour; Kubo packs in more moments of suspense, humour and pathos in its 90-minute runtime than most of this year’s biggest summer movies put together. Like Tomm Moore’s charming Song Of The Sea, Kubo’s about a child coming to terms with loss and fear, and how dreams and storytelling help us process and preserve our memories.
Some may find Kubo And The Two Strings’ dream logic and curious twists of fate a little perplexing, and very young viewers might be disturbed by some of the images Laika serve up here. But in terms of character, charm, affection for Japanese culture and sheer craft, Kubo And The Two Strings emerges as one of the year’s finest animated movies. Viewed on a big screen, its imagination and design take on an almost mystical quality.
Kubo And The Two Strings is out in UK cinemas on the 9th September.