Sunday, August 21, 2016


I wouldn't be surprised if 2016 goes down as an absolute banner year for animation. Not only have films like Zootopia and Finding Dory proven that Disney and Pixar have still very much "got it," and this year saw the stateside release of near-legendary anime films Only Yesterday and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time as well as the new Mamoru Hosada joint The Boy and the Beast, but now. . .

Well, now a studio that has already gotten more than a few kind words from me in the past may well have made their masterpiece.

I don't know who keeps giving LAIKA (the studio who started with Coraline and has refused to stop making good movies since) money, but I hope they never have a change of heart, win every lottery, and live forever.

Kubo marks what is arguably the most "traditional" animated family adventure film to come from stop motion maestros, in that it's a story containing a "Hero's Quest" that would fit the Joseph Campbell Hero With a Thousand Faces playbook to a "t." However, like the art of their meticulously-constructed films, there's more to LAIKA's fantasy than would appear on the surface. The film opens with a woman and her one-eyed baby being washed up on shore, accompanied by the youthful titular narrator warning "If you must blink, do it now," and unfolds to reveal that the child is Kubo, who is something of a bard by trade. Every day he goes to the nearby village to exchange his stories - accompanied by illustrative origami magic from playing his three-stringed shamisen - for coins with which to provide for his ailing mother, the one who told him his forever-unfinished stories in the first place.

Said stories remain unfinished because Kubo is forbidden to stay out after dark, else powerful dark forces would find him and finish the job they began with his eye. Being a fantasy quest story, he of course "transgresses" by staying out past sunset, is set upon by the wicked daughters of the Moon King, and is ejected from his comfortable home to begin his journey. Tasked with finding his father's legendary armor with only a talking monkey and an amnesiac man-sized samurai beetle for company, Kubo must hone his magical skills and work together with his oddball allies while dodging his evil aunts.

Simply executing this premise solidly with their usual acumen for beautiful stop-motion animation (a dying art that LAIKA has refused to bury) would be enough to build a good family film. But rather than taking the easy lay-up, director Travis Knight uses this well-worn formula to examine the inciting incident that most Hero's Journey narratives tend to gloss over. Where most writers who learned solely on the altar of Star Wars toss a hero into a quest thanks to a dead parent or two with nary a backwards glance, Kubo and the Two Strings is a film all about dealing with loss. And not in the metaphorical or indirect or temporary way that tends to permeate most Pixar or Disney animated films. No, Kubo talks candidly about this for most of its run-time only to finally look the target audience straight in the eye and says, in no uncertain terms:

"One day, you're going to lose everything you love. And you are going to die."

In the good way, I mean. Not to imply that it's chock-full of dreary drudgery and mournful melancholy and nothing else - the film features some choice character banter and comedy as well as its fair share of awe-inspiring set pieces. However, the potent cocktail works because everything is balanced so assuredly. Narrative is parsed out - both in narration and visual storytelling touches - so that older viewers will catch on to certain plot developments while younger ones will be appropriately blindsided by them. The movie takes deliberate time to have its characters interact with one another, lending more weight to perilous situations and assuring that the dramatic beats hammer home more solidly.

Which they do - like gangbusters. If this film "works" at all well for you, the finale may well smash you against a wall, carefully put you back together, and then shatter you all over again. From its stirring music to its storytelling bone fides and hand-made aesthetic, Kubo and the Two Strings is probably the best animated film of the year.

And that really is the least of it.

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