Laika Entertainment has always seemed to have a little bit of a chip on its shoulder. Over the past 10 years, the studio has kept the art form of stop-motion animation alive almost single-handedly, creating films like Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls that combined a modern take on the classic technique with computer-generated enhancements. The results have been dreamy, unforgettable, and unlike anything else produced in animation today.
With its latest film, the fantasy adventure Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika CEO Travis Knight is making the jump from animator to director, and it's tempting to approach the film as a sort of mission statement: a declarative text that lays out just what Knight and Laika think the medium is capable of in 2016. Full of epic water sequences and jaw-dropping battles, Kubo is a technical masterwork and one of the most beautiful films that will be released this year — but that's as far as its wizardry goes.
Kubo opens with one of those tremendous water sequences, and it's the kind of scene that would have you wondering just how a stop-motion studio pulled it off if you weren't so immediately enthralled. An infant Kubo is being shepherded across the sea by his mother in a tiny boat, as vast tidal waves threaten to overtake them. (It's a direct homage to the The Great Wave off Kanagawa, with Japanese woodblock prints serving as a clear visual inspiration throughout the film.) Their vessel is capsized but the pair survive, and years later a young Kubo (Game of Thrones' Art Parkinson) takes care of his ailing mother as she fights off mood swings and bouts of memory loss.
Like Hayao Miyazaki and David Lean hung out and traded notes
Kubo helps them scrape together a living by playing a three-stringed Japanese instrument called a shamisen, which allows him to magically animate pieces of paper into a moving origami puppet show. The film doesn't really explain how or why Kubo has the power, but this is a fantasy, after all, and the sequences are so inventive and whimsical that the logic of it all is beside the point. But the mythology soon gets murky, as Kubo learns that he and his mother are actually on the run from his evil aunts and grandfather, who want to take Kubo's remaining good eye for reasons unknown. (Did I mention that Kubo lost one eye as an infant? Like I said, there's a lot going on.)
Soon enough those familial forces descend, and Kubo finds himself on a quest to track down his late father's armor and weapons, with the help of a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and a samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey). It's bonkers, but Knight keeps the plates spinning by sticking close to his hero's journey blueprint at first. The familiar structure lets the visuals carry the load, and make no mistake: there has never been a stop-motion film that looks like this before. Gone are the nouveau goth or steampunk vibes of Coraline or The Boxtrolls. Kubo and the Two Strings looks like Hayao Miyazaki and David Lean hung out and traded notes, as the film runs the gamut from epic golden-hour vistas to impossibly fantastic visions of origami birds lifting a young Kubo up into the sky.
If only there was as much thought put into the characters as there was the visuals. For all of his convoluted backstory, Kubo is a remarkably unconflicted character, and barely faces a moment of internal turmoil throughout the entire film. Theron and McConaughey have more substantial material to work with as Monkey and Beetle — and manage to work up some real chemistry despite never being together on a set — but their characters simply tumble from set piece to set piece along with the ever-passive Kubo, as the movie ticks off what feel like increasingly arbitrary goals. It's a frustrating experience: as viewer, you expect an emotional pull that the film only provides in the most fleeting of moments.
That's not to infer that Kubo and the Two Strings isn't about something. On the contrary, the film is so in love with the idea of being about storytelling that it nearly forgets to tell a story. "This is probably the most meta thing that we've done," Knight said after a recent screening in Los Angeles, and it's not subtle. Kubo's origami puppet shows are a clean analogue for what Laika does, but the film piles so much else on top of that — thoughts about death, sacrifice, family, and how we all live on through stories — that it loses all sense of focus. Knight's film is visually stunning because of the depth and detail layered in every frame, but taking that same approach to the storytelling itself turns things into a mess. There are too many ideas that never quite come together, particularly as the film winds toward a conclusion that I just found outright mystifying.
There's also the inconvenient question of the casting of the film. Given that this is an animated film peppered with fantastical inhuman characters, the fact that the marquee actors are all white doesn't stir quite the same immediate gut response as the Ghost in the Shell controversy. But Laika describes the film as taking place in "a fantastical ancient Japan," and the character designs certainly reflect that — its core characters are unambiguously Japanese. Making the situation all the more sour is that Laika did cast Japanese actors like George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in tiny roles that amount to just a few lines each. It feels like a token gesture; a tacit admission that yes, whitewashing happens — even in animation.
None of this is to criticize the scope of Kubo's ambitions, nor detract from the very real accomplishments Laika has made with this film. The movie is a huge swing, and delivers a level of visual wonder and magic that the likes of Pixar or Disney Animation simply can't match, not even when they push themselves with something like Inside Out. Part of it is the nature of stop-motion animation itself; there's something about the physical reality of frame-by-frame puppeteering that will always create a tactile sense of wonder that can't be duplicated in any other way.
But the other component is just the sheer audacity of Travis Knight and the team at Laika. By pushing what was once a sputtering art form to new heights, they are continuing to demonstrate that new things are possible, with aesthetics and stylistic choices that are different than any other modern animation studios. Kubo and the Two Strings may not pull off everything it wants to, but it is a proof of concept that somebody can — and it provides some tremendous views along the way.