Monday, August 29, 2016

Brief thoughts on Kubo and the Two Strings.

"If you must blink, do it now", so says young Kubo before he tells a story through rapid guitar strumming and origami brought literally to life. When these words are spoken, it's clear to the viewer that our child narrator and artist is going to take us on the most epic and arresting journey one can imagine. At the same time, it's as if these words are stop-motion studio Laika bracing the viewer for the majestic journey that is to unfold, one that they know will leave us in breathless awe and wonderment by the time the final page has reached its last sentence. Enchant and astound they do, as Kubo and the Two Strings serves as not only their finest film both in craft and substance, but an enviable benchmark for any remaining animated release in 2016, all while taking its sub-medium of animation to spectacular new heights.

A slight step outside of the usual wheelhouse for the studio, Kubo is a very significant turnaround both in style, and in theme from the macabre likes of Coraline and ParaNorman, and a decidedly more weighty and less comedic deviation from their previous film, the aggressively mediocre The Boxtrolls. Kubo and the Two Strings is a very story-driven film about... what else... storytelling. More specifically, it's a film that examines how those stories we tell (forgive the Sarah Polley reference) are shaped by our personal experiences, and how those tales, no matter how tall they are, reveal a powerful sense of autobiography underneath.

It's that sense of personalization and emotional commitment that brings the true strengths out of a storyteller, as well as allow us to confront those memories we drew experience from. Memory and identity are both highly intertwined throughout Kubo and the Two Strings, and the effects of what these moments of the past reflect on the individual, as seen through the eyes of our young hero, highlight deeply evocative subtext. These responses include the likes of a monkey companion of his, tinged with remorse over past trauma and mistakes, to a noble Beatle warrior with no memory of his human life, but who knows himself to have taken part in heroic and legendary deeds. Or their response is that based more on anger and hurt, with Kubo's mostly offscreen grandfather pulling strings behind the scenes in a feeling of betrayal after the disobedience of his daughter, or the response is that of venomous and merciless hatred, with Kubo's twin aunts stalking the heroes with an unforgiving lust for vengeance, and so obsessed with one event in the past that it has seemingly robbed them of their individuality and humanity.

Most of these emotions stirred by the memories of their individual host are all relatable feelings, and while they're certainly appropriate responses to feel, no one of them is the true definitive answer. While witnessing and absorbing all of these feelings first hand on the faces of the other characters, no single one of these feelings come to represent who Kubo is. Rather, it's by embracing all of these feelings and embracing a sense of acceptance that the true character of the individual is shown in full, and while memory is also quite a heavy theme for the film, the film also smartly deconstructs the notion of the past coming to define the individual as well. They say our stories are written as we go, and while many characters in the film feel the need to define themselves by events of the past, what actually comes to define them is by what they achieve in the here and now. It's not that past memories should be ignored or their knowledge disregarded, but that rather than allowing ourselves to be consumed or fall victim to that past, like any great story, there soon comes a point when we must begin a new chapter with our lives. Whether that be to repeat ourselves to the closing pages, or to gain a brand new perspective by branching out on a new path based on new experiences, the choice for how the story ends is all what we make of it at the time.

It's the first time in their history that I feel Laika has finally managed to create a story every bit as beautiful and layered as their animation, which continues to improve as the studio's animators become masters of their craft. As a first time director, Travis Knight has a great understanding of what makes a story so engaging and sweeping, knowing that his visual sense of storytelling is just as vital to establishing the mood of the film as any character speeches. Beginning with a transfixing opening ten minutes, the film exudes a tremendous level of thoughtful sweetness and beautiful subtext through pure silence, soon lacing in epic and stylish action sequences with great gravity, and continually blending the hand-crafted and the digitally enhanced with seamless fashion. But sound is just as vital to delivering the impact of a great story, leading Dario Marianelli to craft his own emotionally and thematically rich creations to complement the power of Knight's artistry, even weaving its lush and memorable melodies into the central story terrifically.

Animated or not, Kubo and the Two Strings is without doubt one of the finest films released this year, a beacon of brilliant originality and personalization from its overseeing minds, and a pure spectacle of the highest enchantment. It took some time, but Laika have finally crafted the film to make them the stop-motion answer to Pixar.

***** / *****

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