This week I went to see Kubo and the Two Strings, the new feature from Laika. It’s a stop-motion film made using physical models.
One of the trailers before it was for DreamWorks’ Trolls, a film made using computer-generated models designed to look like physical models. The characters had a texture resembling the felt that Muppets are made from; the emotion characters in Pixar’s Inside Out sported a similar style.
CGI came to dominate the animation industry years back. Poor old stop-motion – the original form of 3D animation – has tried ever-harder to justify itself in a digital age.
With Kubo, we have a film where the essence of stop-motion is worked into the basic premise. The title character is a boy who, using an enchanted stringed instrument, can bring sheets of paper to life as animated origami figures. He enthrals his fellow villagers with magical puppet shows about the adventures of his samurai father.
Obeying the demands of the Hero’s Journey, Kubo is booted out of his happy village life and sent on exploits of his own. His ability to animate the inanimate evolves from a performance art to a veritable superpower, as when he constructs a functioning sailboat from autumn leaves.
Aesthetically speaking, Kubo is a deeply self-conscious celebration of stop-motion. From Kubo’s puppet shows to a dream sequence set in a world of origami, the film constantly reminds us of the essential fascination that lies in seeing physical objects brought to life for storytelling purposes. The palpable self-awareness reaches its peak during the end credits, when the film gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the making of its centrepiece sequence: a fight between the stop-motion characters and a gigantic animatronic skeleton.
The plot of Kubo and the Two Strings is similarly meta, being a celebration of storytelling.
Kubo tells stories of his dead father – stories given to him by his mother – as a means of keeping his memory alive. Coming to terms with death is a major theme of the film, which emphasises storytelling as a vital part of the process. Stories can conquer death; for a story to be forgotten, the film implies, is something worse than death itself. Kubo’s quest kicks off when his mother succumbs to amnesia, and begins to lose memories of her husband.
I do not know if the story is based on a specific folktale. If it is not, then the writers have done a good job in crafting a convincing modern fairy tale. The film’s robust quest narrative and preoccupation with the number three (Kubo must find three pieces of armour; his mother is one of three sisters; he has three helpers) both speak of folktale traditions, as does the recurring theme of transformation. Most of the main characters have undergone some form of shapeshifting: Kubo’s three friends are a statuette turned into a monkey, a samurai turned into a beetle, and a sheet of paper turned into a samurai.
The film’s awareness of fairy tale traditions, and Kubo’s diegetic role as a storyteller, are more examples of how self-conscious Kubo and the Two Strings is. But it never seems cynical, or laboured. This is a perfect children’s film: imaginative, sincere and with no sops to crass commercialism.
One of my favourite little touches occurs early in the film, when Kubo is performing one of his magical puppet shows. The origami samurai is fighting a giant, firebreathing chicken (added because one of the villagers felt the story needed comic relief) and succeeds in beheading the towering monster. One villager covers the eyes of his small daughter at this moment of violence, but she pushes his hand out of the way and continues to watch the show, a cheerful grin on her face. This is a film that is on the side of the kids.
There were three other people in the audience when I saw it. None were children.