Clever, kindhearted Kubo ekes out a humble living, telling stories to the people of his seaside town. But his quiet existence is shattered when he accidentally summons a spirit from his past which storms down from the heavens to enforce an age-old vendetta. Now on the run, Kubo joins forces with Monkey and Beetle and sets out on a thrilling quest to save his family and solve the mystery of his fallen father, the greatest samurai warrior the world has ever known.
Laika is the little animation studio that could. It may be owned and run by a co-founder of Nike but, based in Oregon, it’s always been David to Hollywood’s Goliath. The three features it’s produced so far – Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012) and The Boxtrolls (2014) – have all been critical and commercial hits despite (or maybe because) of the studio hewing to the age-old technique of stop-motion. Now Kubo and the Two Strings makes it four for four, for this is another triumph, an instant classic that not nearly enough people will go and see.
Set in ancient Japan, and coming off as a tale as old as time (don’t be fooled; this is an all-new story, not that you’d know), we meet the young and feisty Kubo and his ill mother. Living in an isolated cave, Kubo supports them by telling tales of warriors, magic and monsters to the local villagers, bringing to life his origami creations with the power of his music. His mother warns that he must never stay out past sunset or her sisters and his grandfather, the evil Moon King, will come to take his remaining eye, as they took the other when he was a baby. Of course, Kubo defies his mother, the prophecy comes true and the boy is propelled into a quest to find his father’s magic armour to defeat the evil spirits.
New the story may well be, but with a quest, magical armour, squabbling sidekicks and evil family members, this borrows from so many established tropes it could easily have come off as a clichéd, tick-all-the-boxes mishmash. But what Laika have done, what they always do, is create a gorgeous, beautiful, heart-rending and very grown-up fable. The story is sturdy and completely engaging, the animation so smooth and flowing you’ll catch yourself asking if it’s not CGI made to look like stop-motion (judicious and limited use of computer graphics is employed where necessary) and the characters are instant classics. Beetle, who looks like Hawkeye from The Avengers and The Tick had a lovechild, is comic relief with Monkey providing the serious tones (Star Wars‘ R2D2 and C3P0 were lifted wholesale from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) and in ‘Kubo, the circle is now complete, with essentially the same characters once more finding themselves back in a Japan-set myth).
The ending is pretty generic but you really won’t notice, and it might give very little ones too much to think about come bedtime, but in a packed animation market that sometimes resembles nothing so less as a CGI vomit-fest, this is a breath of fresh air. Would this be as good, or even better, if animated solely within a computer? It’s doubtful, and every one of those thousands of hours of careful hand animation is up there on the screen to behold. But sadly, Kubo and The Two Strings won’t be in theatres long. Do yourself a favour and see it whilst you can.