Year after year, Laika just keep raising the bar. The stop-frame animation studio made their name with the mould-breaking, instant classic Coraline. But just when you had these guys pegged as the Gothic Aardman, they suddenly go all Studio Ghibli on our asses.
Kubo And The Two Strings sees Laika shake off the dark hues and off-beat notes of ParaNorman for a tale that is simply transcendent.
“If you must blink,” our hero says, “do it now.” And so we are launched into a tale where fantasy and reality sit side-by-side. One moment, Kubo is struggling to care for his widowed mother, the next we’re into the world of vengeful Moon Kings, demonic aunts, and epic samurai battles. This is classic hero-journey stuff, in which a small boy discovers that the tales he has learnt at his mother’s lap may be more than just the wishful ramblings of an ailing mind.
The visuals are entrancing, borrowing from shadow puppetry, origami, and wood cuts to create an aesthetic that feels both authentic and fresh. The pace is positively languid at times – with the plot pulling the viewer gently along – rather than beating them into submission.
In fact, the only off-note in the whole magnificent symphony is Matthew McConaughey’s wisecracking Beetle, who seems to be more a Pixar sidekick rather than the usual nuanced Laika character. Luckily, Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones’ Rickon Stark) takes up the slack by hitting every line perfectly as the strong yet vulnerable Kubo.
Look at their back catalogue, and it’s clear that Laika have never been afraid of tackling Big Themes. But, while Disney and their imitators tend to sugar-coat their “you’ve got a friend in me” messages, Laika have never pulled their punches. Never patronised their audience. Remember Coraline’s ‘perfect’ other mother? ParaNorman’s out and proud beefcake? Box Trolls attack on conformity and belief? Kubo is similarly strident. This is in every way a Five Star film but death and loss are big topics for little ones to tackle. Parents should view before they share – or be prepared for tears at bedtime.