I think it’s pretty clear to tell from what all I’ve posted on this blog that I love anime. But here’s the thing–I love animation. Period. Be it from the east, west, north, south, past, present, future, over, under, or whatever. I often hear people say they don’t want to watch western cartoons because anime is “superior,” that 2D will always be better than 3D, or that modern cartoons can’t live up to the old ones, and vice versa for all. There are valid points to be made in each of those arguments, but I feel like we can’t discriminate against entire fields of work–especially in a medium we love. I’ll admit, I sometimes favor certain films or shows over others because of how they look, but I’ll just about always give a piece of animation a shot if it seems interesting. Why? Because I love animation. And if you, dear readers, love animation, too, then you owe it to yourself and the medium to check out Laika’s films.
Now, this is mainly going to be about Kubo and the Two Strings. It’s just that I re-watched Laika’s other three movies this week, and I want to talk about them for a bit. Laika is…ridiculous. I fully believe the behind-the-scenes special features on their blu-rays exist solely to try and convince people they’re not wizards. The Other Mother after she’s dropped all pretense? Magic. Lightning witch Agatha? Magic. Archibald Snatcher’s mech? Magic. The entirety of Kubo? Magic. These people are fantastic at their craft, and I truly believe their stop-motion films are the best we’ve ever seen. I enjoy The Nightmare Before Christmas, and I tend to like Aardman’s stuff. Laika’s just on another level.
I’m even including The Boxtrolls in that estimation, and that’s my least favorite film of theirs. I like Boxtrolls–I really do. I’ll even say it’s good. In terms of story, atmosphere, and characters, though, it just doesn’t live up to what Laika did before. But it is good. I actually liked it more the second time I watched it. I chuckled when I was supposed to, and I just appreciated the work that went into it more. Plus, Sir Ben Kingsley as Snatcher is positively great. Now, if I say their third film is my least favorite but it’s still good, then how do I feel about the first two?
Honestly, Coraline and ParaNorman are two of the greatest animated films out there. Yes, there are some plotting problems, but they’re both fantastic. Coraline is a wonderful modern fairy tale that still creeps me out. I can’t look into the button eyes of the Other characters and not be unnerved. Plus, the movie reminds me a lot of Psychonauts. I don’t know if that’s just me or not, though. As for ParaNorman…it’s my favorite of the three.
I love how the movie looks–even moreso than Coraline. Laika nailed the small town of Blithe Hollow and all its inhabitants. I feel the movie has more charm than the other two, and I enjoy the spoofs/homages to ’80s horror–even though that era is extremely far from my forte. ParaNorman really works because of how surprisingly dark it is. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it here, but the truth of the witch’s curse is legitimately poignant. Also, I know this is especially weird, but it reminds me of one of the Scooby-Doo movies I really love, Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost. Yeah, I have no excuse for that.
With all that said, how does their fourth outing, Kubo and the Two Strings, fare? Really damn well.
Laika’s latest movie follows Kubo–an eyepatch-wearing young boy who lives in a cave with his mom. Kubo spends a lot of time taking care of her since she suffered a pretty bad head injury many years prior, so she’s only cognizant for a few hours each day. When he’s not doing that, though, he ventures to the little nearby village and tells the story of the mighty samurai Hanzo in his struggle to save his family from the dreaded Moon King while playing his shamisen. The town is enthralled by his tale since his playing is how he channels his magic, and he uses said magic to make little paper creations act out the samurai’s journey. He’s free to do this as long as he follows three rules: He must always wear his father’s robe, he must always keep a little monkey charm with him, and he must never be out after dark.
His mother set these rules in place because he’s actually the son of the hero in his story, Hanzo, and the grandson of the villain, the Moon King. Kubo accidentally stays outside after dark one day because he tried talking to his father’s spirit during a local festival. His grandfather finally sees him and sends Kubo’s aunts (who look amazing) to bring the boy back so that he may remove Kubo’s other eye. Kubo’s mother will have none of it, though, and she uses the last of her magic to send Kubo far away and to bring to life the monkey charm Kubo always keeps with him. They’re tasked with finding the pieces of a legendary armor so that they can defeat the Moon King once and for all. Along the way they’re joined by a cursed beetle-samurai who once served Hanzo. Beautiful stop-motion ensues.
I hinted at it earlier, but Kubo is by far and away the best-looking Laika film. This is just straight-up one of the year’s prettiest films. I actually can’t think of anything that compares. Kubo’s mother’s display of magic in the beginning, the giant skeleton, the creature with all the eyes, and just every-damn-thing else. Nothing in this movie looks average. It’s all top-notch. Their first three films look great, but Kubo legitimately trumps them. I want to give a special shout-out to Kubo’s aunts right quick. They are excellently designed, their fights are cool as hell, and their creepy-factor might put them up there with the Other Mother.
Also, let’s bring up a couple of things that run through all of Laika’s films: The excellent voice acting and the plotting troubles. Laika’s first three movies all have great casts, and Kubo is no exception. Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, and Rooney Mara just kill it. Also like the others, though, the plot isn’t as strong as I’d hoped. There are a few things you can call right off the bat. But, like with ParaNorman, there’s also enough to surprise you. And, when it’s pulled off so well and looking that good, sometimes you can forgive it.
Guy and gals and everything in between and beyond, I love this movie. When it’s all said and done, I think I still like ParaNorman more, but I’ve also only seen Kubo once. This isn’t just Laika’s best-looking film yet, but it’s also the most visually astonishing movie this year. The great atmosphere and characters also add to its greatness, and even though its plot is sometimes very predictable, the movie’s strengths and one or two surprises within the story more than make up for whatever shortcomings it has.
Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the best movies to come out this year, and I implore you all to go and see it.