In a summer film season filled with duds and needless sequels, the best exception by far has to be Kubo and the Two Strings. This stop-motion animated standout was expertly produced by Laika Studios, released through Focus Features, a subsidiary of Universal, and is currently still in theaters—which is good for you. Kubo could put a nice finish on a lackluster season’s doldrums.
Featuring the directorial debut of Travis Knight, Laika’s CEO and the lead animator on Coraline and The Boxtrolls, Kubo is an Asian-style fairy tale that’s not for the faint of heart; dire circumstances and death rule in this story of a young Japanese boy who plays a special shamisen inherited from his magical parents. Although it’s neither gory nor gratuitous, people and monsters are killed, and the main characters live under constant threat of annihilation. The visuals are stunning; the animation aesthetic, lighting, special effects and stop-motion models are all truly top-shelf. (One monster puppet, used for only a single scene, is 14 feet tall and requires a small crane to animate it!) Kubo is what I like to call the real deal—an animated film made by people who care about what they do.
Stop-motion is just like any other animation, except the medium relies on physical sets and objects (models, dolls or anything else, really) captured in motion on single frames of film, rather than painted sequences of single drawings (as in 2-D or cel animation) or virtual models and rendering (currently all the rage for 3-D animated features and special effects in films—a.k.a. SFX). Stop-motion has been around for as long as film has, with examples dating to the 1890s. French fin de siècle filmmaker Georges Méliès, the father of SFX, relied on stop-motion to make fantastic movies like A Trip to the Moon (1902), and German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger created the first feature-length animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), using stop-motion animation in the form of shadow-puppet-style cutouts. Films like 1925’s The Lost World and 1933’s smash hit King Kong allowed Hollywood SFX pioneer Willis O’Brien to wow American audiences with stop-motion dinosaurs and one big, hairy ape.
Many of our childhoods were colored by the Rankin/Bass television productions of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (1970), and syndicated TV series like The Gumby Show (1955–1968), made for NBC by Art Clokey using Claymation (a clay-based, more malleable style of stop-motion animation), all of which were benchmarks for boomers and Gen Xers. But the king of stop-motion—the man who brought it to the big screen for decades—was Ray Harryhausen. After working with O’Brien on another great-ape saga, Mighty Joe Young (1949), Harryhausen soon became the stop-motion SFX man in the movie biz, delivering a staggering list of classic sci-fi, horror and fantasy films, including 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and 1981’s Clash of the Titans.
In the 1990s, stop-motion was back in the spotlight, with Tim Burton’s cult-fave The Nightmare Before Christmas and, since the arrival of Nick Park at Aardman Animation in the U.K., the ongoing adventures of Wallace and Gromit. By 2009, the world was well used to this more traditional form of 3-D animation when Oregon-based Laika burst onto the scene with its hit film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s illustrated children’s book Coraline, which wowed audiences with the excellent animation and computer-assisted effects that would become the studio’s hallmarks. Laika bet the farm on Coraline, and the financial risk paid off. The studio repeated its success in 2012 with ParaNorman, an excellent grade-school zombie thriller, and 2014’s Boxtrolls (which is basically about what it sounds like).
Like ParaNorman and Coraline, the situations in Kubo are strange and carry elements of supernatural horror. But the action scenes are terrifically choreographed, and the violence is handled well for a PG-rated family film. If Kubo does stumble a bit in its fantastic journey, it’s because of the story. Parts of this tale could have been better crafted, and some plot devices don’t make perfect sense. That’s disappointing—but not enough to seriously detract from the film’s overall quality and watchability. Kubo holds true to its mythical, fairy-tale milieu and would probably have made Joseph Campbell smile.
It’s probably not for the youngest kids, and that’s good—not everything is or should be—but tweens and up will dig it. The audience for animation has been expanding steadily in the U.S. for the past 30 years, and Kubo should be on everyone’s must-see list. (It’s no exception, however, to this summer’s rough box office results; I’m mystified that Laika’s most gorgeous and entertaining film isn’t doing better.) Laika’s ambition in telling this story on such a grand scale is commendable, and if we want to see more stop-motion or other animated films that don’t fit the often-confining Disney/Pixar mold, movies like Kubo are important to support. This year we’ve been lucky to have two great American animated films on the big screen, the landmark Zootopia and, now, Kubo and the Two Strings. Get out and see Kubo while its still in theaters, because we don’t get these opportunities often.
Steve Rittler teaches animation at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, and William Paterson University, in Wayne, New Jersey.
Feature photo: Everett Collection