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Harmonious toon

Gorgeous animation, emotional story come together in dark, exciting stop-motion film

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/8/2016 (1501 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Animation holds the promise of opening up whole universes. So why are wondrous, imaginative, original animated features so rare?

This breathlessly beautiful epic, from Portland, Ore.-based boutique animation house Laika, shows what toons can really do when freed of conventional commercial ideas (and liberated from the constraints of franchises and licensed merch).

Laika Studios / Focus Features</p><p>Kubo, voiced by Art Parkinson, is the protagonist in Kubo and the Two Strings, which draws on traditional Japanese folktales for its story.</p></p>

Laika Studios / Focus Features

Kubo, voiced by Art Parkinson, is the protagonist in Kubo and the Two Strings, which draws on traditional Japanese folktales for its story.

The studio’s three previous features — Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls — have all been nominated for Oscars, thanks in part to their artful, old-school stop-motion animation. In Kubo and the Two Strings, the gorgeous visuals are backed with a powerful story that draws on traditional Japanese folktales.

Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson, Game of Thrones’ Rickon Stark) is a small boy living near a coastal village with his traumatized mother. Every day he earns a few coins telling stories in the town square, using carefully crafted origami figures and the music of his shamisen, a stringed instrument.

Kubo’s stories, it turns out, are connected to his own past. His father died defending him from his mother’s malevolent father and sisters. The conflict goes beyond the average family feud to a supernatural rift.

Laika Studios / Focus Features</p><p>Kubo, voiced by Art Parkinson (left), and Monkey, voiced by Charlize Theron.</p>

Laika Studios / Focus Features

Kubo, voiced by Art Parkinson (left), and Monkey, voiced by Charlize Theron.

When his witchy aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara) renew their attack, Kubo must become the hero of his own adventure. He undertakes a quest for three magical objects, along with two guides, the stern Monkey (Charlize Theron), a wooden carving come to life, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a samurai who has been cursed with the form of a giant bug.

There’s the usual comical road-trip carping. Monkey is a pessimist. ("Do you ever say anything encouraging?" Kubo asks. "I encourage you not to die," Monkey replies.) Beetle is an optimist, channelling Buzz Lightyear, the Tick and maybe just a titch of just-keep-livin’-era McConaughey in his likable obliviousness.

The story, by scripters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, is simple but holds layers of mystery and meaning. As with the brilliantly unsettling Coraline, Kubo is dark — often very dark — but also hopeful. It shares with old fairy tales and newer inheritors like Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak and Lemony Snicket the idea that children don’t want to be wrapped in cotton wool. They want to explore their fears and overcome them through storytelling.

From left: Monkey, voiced by Charlize Theron; Kubo, voiced by Art Parkinson; and the samurai Beetle, voiced by Matthew McConaughey.</p>

From left: Monkey, voiced by Charlize Theron; Kubo, voiced by Art Parkinson; and the samurai Beetle, voiced by Matthew McConaughey.

Director Travis Knight’s visuals are an extraordinary mix of old and new technologies. Laika animators work in labour-intensive stop-motion animation, but the models are produced by a 3D printer. There is a little added CGI, for water effects and general buffing up, but the overall feel is tactile and organic.

Some of the visuals have the precise, delicate beauty of origami, honouring the ancient Japanese setting without getting cutesy. (The voice casting remains an uneasy compromise. The filmmakers are sensitive enough to give Asian and Asian-American actors almost all the minor voice roles, but not quite brave enough to make them leads.)

Like many great cartoons, Kubo and the Two Strings works on several levels. The action is intense and occasionally scary and it might not be for all children. Kids who do like it will learn some (very quiet) lessons about self-reliance, resilience and love. Older viewers, meanwhile, will be thinking about memory, loss and grief.

And nobody will be thinking about sequels, spinoffs or overpriced action figures.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

Read full biography

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