By Hanajun Chung
At this point, there's no one better at making stop-motion animation than the Oregon-based LAIKA Entertainment. Their attention to detail and immense creativity returns with "Kubo and the Two Strings," providing not only the best animated film this year, but quite possibly delivering the best stop-motion film ever made.
Taking inspiration from classic samurai epics and video games, "Kubo" follows the titular young street performer/magician (Art Parkinson) as he's forced to go on a journey to find his late father's armor. With the aid of a stern, maternal "Monkey" (Charlize Theron) and a lumbering but skilled "Beetle" (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo must find the armor before he's discovered and captured by his aunts (Rooney Mara) and his grandfather (Ralph Fiennes).
Future animators most likely following the big CG releases from Disney, Pixar or Dreamworks should really pay close attention to this film and LAIKA. There's some amazing, inspired imagery outside the already gorgeous and familiar iconography from the genre. Some of the best samurai films are also the most gorgeous, and "Kubo" is especially breathtaking in it's many different settings. Movement is masterfully achieved — whether it's character or action, featuring moments that people have never seen before; magical scenes that feel all the more real due to the filmmaker's craft.
Coraline (2009) - The total amount of facial expressions created amount to over 208,000.
ParaNorman (2012) - The first film to fully embrace color 3D printing for character design and creation.
The Boxtrolls (2014) - Over 70,000 handmade props were used in the film.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) - One week's worth of work would amount to four complete seconds.
Armed with his shamisen (normally a three-stringed instrument, not two), the character and the film don't skimp out on the music. Kubo's performances in earlier scenes have a rhythmic energy that work harmoniously with the action on screen. But the overall score and music of this film is great, featuring a wonderful cover/reworking of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
While the entire film isn't purely stop-motion, the incorporation of digital animation gives the film an extra bit of polish. Certain set pieces benefit from digital aid, but considering the fact that the film also uses rear projection (filming a subject while an image is projected behind) is a more of a testament to the filmmakers pulling out all the stops.
There's quite a lot to like with the characters themselves, all fully realized thanks to the outstanding character design and voice acting, especially that of Theron and Mara. While it would've been great to see more diversity in casting the performers, what the audience ends up getting out of the A-list cast is quite excellent.
If there's any real complaint regarding "Kubo", it's that the film could've benefited with a little more material, specifically regarding universe and certain character backstories. Much of the story constantly refers to Kubo's late father throughout the plot, but it still feels like there wasn't enough to make the later scenes feel more impactful and less predictable for older audiences. At 101 minutes, it still has much to keep younger audiences happy.
That's probably what makes "Kubo" rank in the all-time greats. Not only does it set the bar on a technical level (holding the record for largest, stop-motion animatronic), but does so with the emphasis on story first. The best kid's films will always be remembered due to their story and the way it engages, often challenges their audience. LAIKA's creation is a testament to storytelling and the humanity behind it—and how it can lead to something everlasting and beautiful.