Laika has definitely come of age with “Kubo and the Two Strings.” The stop-motion samurai fantasy represents a summation of everything the Portland studio has accomplished with its four films to date. Its vision of mythic Japanese folklore is epic and exquisite while its heroic rite of passage is thrilling and tender. No wonder Laika president/CEO Travis Knight plunged into directing “Kubo,” undoubtedly the animation studio’s strongest Oscar contender.
Not surprisingly, “Kubo’s” also deeply personal for Knight. “It’s a story fundamentally about family, about a time when we cross that Rubicon from childhood to adulthood,” said Knight, “the things that we gain and the things that we leave behind.”
Clever, kindhearted Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson of “Game of Thrones”) ekes out a humble living in a seaside town with his mother, telling stories and playing his shamisen. That is, until Kubo accidentally summons a spirit that enforces an age-old vendetta and hurls him on an adventure to save his family, battling giant monsters and demons with the help of two spirits: Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and the samurai Beetle (Matthew McConaughey).
When Knight was growing up, he was an obsessive fan of big fantasy. “Back when my mom [Penny] was pregnant with me and when I was born, she was reading ‘Lord of the Rings,’ he said. “It was one of the great gifts that was bestowed upon me by my mother. I loved Tolkien and I loved ‘Star Wars,’ which was the first memory that I have being in a movie theater. And, of course, that was the defining movie for me as a kid.”
Anther was when Knight’s father, Nike owner Phil Knight, took him to Japan for the first time when he was eight. It was a life-altering experience for the Oregon native and ever since he’s had a deep and abiding love for the beauty of Japan and its culture.
“Kubo” thus became a remembrance of his youth: samurai stories, epic fantasy, stop-motion animation and the transcendent art of Japan. “In terms of what’s personal, as we were developing it, you start to see parallels between characters and your own life,” Knight said. “And it didn’t dawn on me until we were pretty deep in the process that Kubo is an artist, a musician, an animator and a storyteller. His whole existence and journey mirrors my own— a fantastic version of it, obviously.”
But the most important part of Knight’s childhood was the close bond with his mother. “And this film explores when these things begin to shift and irrevocably change,” Knight said. “And we learn that hard truth: to love is to open yourself up to pain. But it heals us and gives us strength.”
It’s challenging enough to oversee the Laika animation, but Knight was suddenly splitting his time between running his studio and directing his first movie. “The one thing that suffered was time to crank out a few frames of animation,” Knight said. “The biggest single chunk that I did was at the beginning of the film with Kubo and his mom, particularly at the beach. I remember thinking when I was working on it that it was the worst thing for me to have chosen: you’ve got flowing fabric, sand and little bits that she needs to crawl through.”
Technically, “Kubo’s” another breakthrough for Laika and the stop-motion industry, with exotic sets, finely-crafted kimonos, soft origami paper puppets, the 18-foot Ray Harryhausen-inspired Skeleton and the first fully 3D-printed puppet (the Moon Beast).
“The spectacle was hard, the dynamic action sequences were difficult, the martial arts battles were tough,” Knight said. “There are moments that are as detailed, as nuanced and as inventive as anything we’ve ever done.”
Laika also improved its Academy Sci-Tech award-winning 3D printing for greater color and facial performance, and used plastic for Monkey and Beetle to overcome limitations in the process.
“Kubo” significantly bids a fond farewell to Laika’s four-film cycle devoted to childhood as the studio turns its focus to adult characters.
“The upcoming films are very different from what Laika’s done in the past. And if people think they have us figured out, it will force them to re-evaluate that,” said Knight, who still hopes one day to be on an annual release schedule.
But, for the first time, Laika overlapped productions while expanding its studio space with a new building. Look for the next (as yet unannounced) movie to possibly open in the spring of 2018.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” opens on Friday, August 19.