Since Coraline first hit cinemas in 2009 and terrified multiple generations of both kids and adults the world-over, the Laika name has become associated with first-rate animation, putting even the likes of Pixar to shame. And with their latest effort, they’ve somehow exceeded expectations.
Set within the gorgeously-realised, origami-infused lands of ancient Japan, Kubo and the Two Strings follows a young storyteller, obsessed with the legend of his dead samurai father, who quickly finds himself thrust into a cross-country quest to uncover an unbreakable suit of armour.
Charlize Theron voices a talking monkey, Matthew McConnaughey an amnesiac warrior beetle and Rooney Mara a pair of sinister, V For Vendetta-meets-The Shining style twins; based on character descriptions alone you wouldn’t be mistaken for thinking that this was just any other super-colourful fantasy adventure. But of course, you would be horribly, horribly wrong.
Not only is Kubo Laika’s most polished and pronounced project to date (yes, even more so than the Oscar-nominated Coraline) but it’s also one of the most heartfelt, sincere and just generally badass releases of the year full-stop.
It’s a film that’s completely spellbinding in almost every department from even just its opening alone. From the sharply cut animation, to the endlessly creative plotting, to Dario Marianelli’s positively entrancing (and neatly oriental) score, every single painstakingly rendered frame just oozes with subtle Japanese nods and inspired artistic vision. Throwaway kids movie this most definitely is not.
In fact, whilst the basic quest plot and underlying jokes are very obviously child friendly, the more unusual and uncharted directions Kubo eventually springs into don’t always follow suit. There’s not exactly anything here to cause alarm or complaint from parents, but it’s worth noting that this isn’t a film that insults the intelligence of its younger viewers, stretching their mental and visual capacities wherever possible.
The level of detail and genuine texture the stop-motion approach brings to Laika’s projects has always been a major part of their pulling-power as a studio, and here is really no different. Scenes flow so smoothly and with such consistency that at times it’s very easy to forget that you’re not watching something that’s been rendered by computers.
Bundle this precision together with a tightly-woven story guaranteed to excite almost anyone of any age (legends are quite clever that way) and it becomes instantly clear that with Kubo, Laika have produced one of the smartest and most beautiful films in a long while.
It may get a little sappy for some, particularly towards its finale, and Theron’s voice-work could use a tiny emotional touch-up, but none of these things separate Kubo from its legacy as one of the finest animated movies possibly ever. Well, at least in the top ten.
With Pixar and DreamWorks still seemingly lost in a haze of reliving old classics, and Disney largely concerned with soft-edged musicals, this could well be Laika’s time to steal the limelight once and for all. Something we’re happy to fully endorse.
Kubo and the Two Strings is released in the UK this Friday by Universal Pictures.