Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest it has always been a little odd having a movie studio right in our backyard. This is the type of thing that generally is associated with Hollywood but in the 80’s Will Vinton Studios would rise to fame thanks to the California Raisins, advertising mascots which became incredibly popular at the time. Eventually however the studio would crumbled only to be reborn as Laika Studios whose focus changed from Claymation to stop-motion animation and over the years their releases would have a slightly darker approach, more in the line of Tim Burton rather than Pixar. Most children probably aren’t necessarily taken by the releases of Laika as they often have some rather scary imagery but this certainly isn’t true of every child. My daughter became enamored with Laika at about three-years-old thanks to Coraline, a film which she was initially a little scared of and yet immediately wanted to watch a second time, and then a third . . . . then a fourth. So the first trailer for Kubo brought with it a familiar look that my daughter immediately picked up on and wanted to see the movie immediately despite the fact it didn’t open for several months. Ultimately we ended up missed its theatrical run but home video finally provides her with the means to satisfy her craving.
Kubo and the Two Strings is set in ancient Japan and follows to adventures the title character Kubo, a young boy who lives with his mother in a small village. Prior to their arrival his mother fled from powerful forces and nearly died at sea. The two now call a cave in the mountains their home and to earn money Kubo uses his talents to bring origami to life, a power granted to him by playing his shamisen, and while those in the village are always engrossed in his tales, he never finishes as his mother has a very strict rule that he must follow; Kubo must never be out after sunset. Kubo inadvertently breaks this rule after becoming enthralled with the villages’ local obon festival and in a darkened cemetery two mysterious women track him down. The village is left is ruins but not before Kubo’s mother uses her magic to spirit him away.
Kubo awakens to find himself with a single individual to guide him. The monkey statue he has long carried with him has come to life and it is her duty to protect him along with one of his origami creations, Little Hanzo which is a representation of his father. As they set out on their adventure they meet a samurai who has been transformed into a half-human, half-beetle and he claims he was once a member of his father’s apprentice. Now the group sets out in search of the pieces of armor which once belonged to Hanzo in hopes of defeating Raiden the Moon King, Kubo’s grandfather whom his mother has kept him hidden from for years but now that he has found him, he will stop at nothing to capture the boy.
If you’ve never seen one of Laika’s films in the past, as previously written they work with stop-motion animation, a craft which was really brought into the forefront of cinema thanks to the work of Ray Harryhausen but over the decades it has improved drastically although on the opposite side of the spectrum, it’s something which has almost been completely forgotten by most and only used by a scant few. Tim Burton of course has been the name in the film business who has revived it to some degree thanks to Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie but Burton doesn’t necessarily rely on it as his standard method of filmmaking. It’s more of an occasional style he uses whereas this is what Laika is all about.
As with most of the Laika releases, Kubo shows improvements on what they can accomplish with stop-motion animation. They have always had set designs which shows a great amount of detail but it comes through even better in Kubo in my opinion. The parts of the film which really are intended to show ancient Japan generally come across quite well and showcase a good understanding it would seem and aren’t simply haphazardly thrown together construction meant to represent Japan. Everything of course is a fantasy setting but for the most part the things of the presentation side attempt to give you the feeling that you’re in Japan.
As with other Laika releases, Kubo does have a certain paranormal element to it which may frighten younger viewers. Even with my daughter having watched Coraline several times as well as ParaNorman (she wasn’t really into The Boxtrolls) there were still a few moments when she’d get close to dad. The ghostly sisters and the giant skeletons are among a few of the more spooky offerings that Kubo brings to the screen.
Kubo’s journey is one that mixes comedy in with the supernatural. His new friend Monkey is trying her best to keep Kubo out of harm’s way and his powers seem to be growing stronger, something which he will occasionally play with and often to Monkey’s dismay. Beetle on the other hand has very limited recollection of his past with Hanzo, at least until certain events trigger his memories. Right from the start it appears as though he and Monkey aren’t going to get along and they are often bickering between each other however there is a connection that none of them are aware of. Monkey however is the one who has the knowledge of the past but there is a deeper connection that the three of them share which comes to light much later in the film.
It’s not a surprise that the movie looks fantastic on blu-ray. This has generally been the case with most animated features, not just those of the modern era but those which also have been given the proper care to preserve them. At times Kubo can get you lost in its magnificence and imagined locations. You know that it’s an animated feature but the details are some fantastic you can simply forget it about it although temporarily. I really didn’t see any visual issues with the transfer which make the film stand out as being less than amazing.
The film includes commentary with Travis Knight. There is also a six-part feature, Kubo’s Journey, which explores a variety of aspects of the movie. Shorter features look at the “locations” of the movie as well as the mythology worked in. You will also find a DVD copy and a variety of digital copies.
Laika Studios has again proven that an older form of animation can still be presented in an entertaining fashion. Kubo and the Two Strings might not have that bright, polished look that some expect with any of the computer animated films, but I don’t think that’s a detriment in the least. Kubo is a memorable journey that should appeal to just about everyone. Personally, I don’t feel that Laika has made a bad film at this point. Some might not be as great as others but overall they have managed to keep what could have become a dead art form very much alive and Kubo and the Two Strings shows how they continue to improve their craft with both animation and weaving a great story.
Mike is the resident reviewer for Couponing to Disney and his own site Underland Online. He has a toddler daughter and is obsessed with Haunted Mansion and all things Disney. You can read Mike’s complete bio here.