Even Disney animation and sadly perhaps even Pixar appear to be more influenced by merchandise or what is oft-feeling like a formulaic emotional fulfillment.
Kubo and the Two Strings, Portland's Laika studio, is bravely going against that grain. Hearkening back to older animation eras, and even older fairy tales, where storytellers aren't afraid to balance dark against good and to scare its audience a little, reminding us that horror can be inherent in our lives, but perhaps the brightest lights shine in the darkness. Kubo isn't perfect, but it should be fully commended and appreciated for the epic accomplishment it is. It's a stunning piece of animation, and there's an overbrimming heart full of painstaking care evident in it -- even speaking from dull terms of the time, ie the 19 months it took to animate the boat scene.
Laika has forged a creation which they clearly believe is worth the extra time and effort. Although director and Laika CEO Travis Knight has expressed a future hope that they can do as Pixar does in producing a movie per year, right now their output is roughly one movie per three years. However, its core team has remained mostly the same since their first full feature in 2009, the wonderfully eerie Coraline. This means that not only have they grown together as a team, but also that whatever they learn for one film, they're able to apply to the next, essentially adding to their bag of tricks. And what a bag of tricks it is. Embracing what was a quickly dying art of stop motion, they applied technological advances and cg to try and seamlessly craft new stories. For example, for Kubo uses a 3D printer to create countless expressions for character's faces to be replaced constantly. Their goal is not to create a realistic world, but a highly stylized one that enraptures viewers.
At 2.35:1, Kubo uses every bit of its screen to impart its heroic tale. The story is a basic one of a protagonist with extraordinary powers coming of age on a quest with three essential steps. Fantastic voice acting brings warmth to the characters, such as Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, and the uncanny Rooney Mara (whose ability to do no wrong in my eyes encompasses even her performance in Pan).
Laika draws from influences as varied as Noh theater, Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts (speaking of artists as masochists), and Tomoe Gozen. There's a grace and melancholy, not just to how these stop-motion characters move, but in the poetry of how they play out their lives. Kubo draws on its storytelling metaphor often, but it hopefully serves as a reminder of how much power each character has in forging his own tale. There's dramatic theater at play here within the folds of the narrative that changes voices and hands off, like an oral history being reshaped and given new life.
Does Laika suffer from storytelling weakness in its own ranks? Coraline is easily the best narrative of all its movies, and that's drawn fairly closely from the Neil Gaiman novel. The other movies to follow were fantastic at mixing the sinister with good-hearted humor, but also shaded thin on its characters and the overall plot. Kubo does fare better, but suffers from one-dimensional characters and a plot that at times feels standard and at others would serve better as a video rpg arc. If Laika could somehow harness all that care they put into their craft into making an equally innovative story, they'd knock it out of the park.
However, Kubo is worth every second and dime you put into it for its craft. Watch carefully, and listen to the opening words, which impart its viewers with the admonition: "If you must blink, do it now."