Stop-Motion Finds its Opus in Kubo and the Two Strings

Christian Bolles, Editor-in-Chief

One of the most fervent debates in the sphere of moviemaking involves the value of film as art. For most, it’s understandably difficult to equate a two-hour long barrage of clichés and explosions like Transformers to, say, a Caravaggio. But then there are the movies that elicit emotion by sheer virtue of design, like Mad Max: Fury Road. Though pumped full of adrenaline and packed from beginning to end with screeching metal and unintelligible shouting, the ingenious design behind every frame makes the glorified chase scene into something special. Seeing a character sporting a flaming guitar on the back of a big rig is one thing; knowing that a real person actually held a physical guitar that spouted flame while riding a painstakingly-designed truck is another. Where some films excel in emotional depth, others excel in visual depth — both of which are valid examples of artists engaging with their craft. Kubo and the Two Strings, the new stop-motion adventure from studio Laika, masters both.

In terms of visual design, few mediums are more respected than stop-motion, but the painstaking art form has a nebulous history. In 1898, when J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith set out to make a movie about children attending a smaller-than-life circus, practical effects weren’t just a novelty, but a necessity. Blackton and Smith recognized stop-motion’s efficacy as a form of technical wizardry, guaranteed to wow audiences with surreal tricks of the eye that seemed like magic at the time. Unlike digital special effects and hand-drawn animation, stop-motion’s charm didn’t have the opportunity to tire out from overuse, instead settling into a niche among artists with the patience to use it. Some of this stasis can be attributed to its categorization as a medium for children; in fact, Blackton himself eventually dismissed his forays into animation as childish. And yet, the art endured, sometimes spiking with beloved works like Wallace and Gromit and The Nightmare Before Christmas before falling back into seeming obscurity. Stop-motion lacked a consistent advocate, a reliable voice to keep it afloat.

In February 2009, Laika became that voice. Though the studio had been around for four years prior, the release of its first film, Coraline, propelled it onto the world stage. The film utilized advanced stop-motion techniques, proving Laika’s unmatched skill. Grossing $124.6 million worldwide off an ambitious budget of $60 million, the dark, understated adaptation of the popular children’s novel secured the studio a place among the greats. In the wake of Coraline’s success, the studio released two more films, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, but neither managed to top the success of their debut feature. Taking solace in the strength of their craft rather than balking at the potential for failure, the dedicated team at Laika poured their next years into the production of a stop-motion feature for a new age of jaded moviegoers, intent on impressing. Having toyed with the dichotomy between the brightness of youth and the darkness of corruption, Laika could have rehashed old stories and leaned on visual flare.

Kubo and the Two Strings, released Aug. 19 nationwide, manages to sustain a well of emotion as deep as the craftsmanship that permeates every shot. Its narrative beautifully sustains a character-driven adventure spanning sun-kissed fields, desolate snowscapes and terrifying seas — all rendered with the beauty one would expect from the world’s premiere stop-motion artists. In fact, Kubo transcends the art form from which it was born; though everything in the foreground is hand-crafted, its every artistic endeavor, ranging from the design of its sprawling sets to the painstakingly precise rendering of each facial subtlety, succeeds spectacularly. Viewers would be hard-pressed to suppress shock at Kubo’s moment-to-moment fidelity, accomplished through Laika’s well-oiled production model: one artist working on each scene at a time. Though accomplished by a patchwork of animators, the consistency of the film’s understanding of the human face impresses up to the last frame.

Kubo is the rare example of an animated film that hinges on great performances, thanks to its pioneering use of 3D printing to generate swappable faces with infinitely nuanced variation. This new technology necessitates great performers for the sake of on-screen mimickry — though Matthew McConaughey affects the near-unrecognizable cadence of a lovable doofus type, the facial animation of his half-beetle, half-man warrior perfectly suggests the actor behind the character. The same is true for Charlize Theron as Monkey; even in primate form, her performance shines through, delivering her funniest lines with indifferent relish and imbuing sentimental moments with just the right amount of wistfulness. Fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones might recognize the likeness of Art Parkinson as the titular character, pulling off the arc of a little boy turned jaded wanderer with eloquence and infectious energy.

And energy is exactly what young Kubo needs for the journey ahead. Sharing a humble seaside cave with his grief-stricken mother, he spends his days entertaining townsfolk who gather to listen to his tales of heroes and monsters, supplemented by his magical ability to manipulate origami figures. It’s fitting meta-commentary on the nature of storytelling in animation; the boy draws in audiences with visual flourishes while holding them close with powerful mythological rhetoric. He draws his lifeblood, though, from the rare time of day when his mother comes alive with the very stories he’ll repeat the next day, highlighting the age-old truth that no narrative is original. As a film, Kubo meditates constantly on the nature of endings, such that even when the boy stays out at night despite his mother’s admonitions and is whisked away on an adventure of mythical proportions, the looming question of where it all leads pervades its quieter moments.

These moments are many, as Kubo’s few action sequences are spread thin over an otherwise quiet journey. The narrative instead relies on the animation style’s inherent sense of uncanny mystery. Much of the danger is spoken of rather than seen, making it all the more effective when those lurking terrors are brought to the foreground. For a movie ostensibly made for children, there are some truly terrifying images and themes; one pair of antagonists in particular is enough to inspire chills even in adult moviegoers.

In all of its design, from the weapons to that creepy duo, Kubo is simply cool. Laika may have taken a risk in playing to a wider audience — Kubo, much more so than their other films, feels like the child of some higher-bar corner of Hollywood — but in doing so, they’ve broached a whole new world of potential for stop-motion animation. This is a film that anyone could appreciate, from the youngest Saturday-morning-cartoon fan to the oldest Godfather aficionado. Kubo and the Two Strings has epitomized Laika’s vision. One can only hope that, like Kubo himself, they’ll keep that magic alive.