At multiple points throughout “Kubo and the Two Strings,” the title character instructs his audience to “pay careful attention.” Luckily, the team behind one of 2016’s most striking animated films makes focus incredibly easy.
Animation directors often see their visions smoothed out to pacify audiences, but “Kubo and the Two Strings” just doesn’t look like anything else. Even as the film navigates some familiar animated tropes (talking animals, fraught parental relationships, talk of destiny), it unfurls its mythology with great economy and impressive scale.
The man at the helm is Travis Knight, president and CEO of animation house Laika since 2009. After serving as a lead animator on the studio’s three previous features (“Coraline,” “ParaNorman,” and “The Boxtrolls”), “Kubo and the Two Strings” is Knight’s first stint in the director’s chair, shepherding this original tale of a young boy who must brave a treacherous voyage to assemble a mythic set of armor and defend himself from the nefarious vestiges of his family’s past.
Alternating between vast setpieces and honest moments of interspecies interaction, “Kubo” is the work of a studio that’s honed its filmmaking process for the better part of a decade. Laika has never been afraid of the metaphysical, and this story lives in a heightened realm where magic is both possible and inevitable. It gave Knight and his team the chance to fully utilize its particular brand of stop-motion animation. Toss in a top-flight voice cast and a rich Dario Marianelli score, and you have the studio’s strongest effort yet.
Now with four features under its belt, Laika has cultivated a filmmaking culture that relies on institutional knowledge and intuition over studio demands. “Kubo and the Two Strings” took five years to make, and the team had the luxury of working in their insulated Portland, OR headquarters. Knight acknowledges that the process is counterintuitive, but argues that it helped make “Kubo” the best it could have been.
While loss has become a common theme in children’s films, a significant achievement for “Kubo and the Two Strings” was skillfully weaving that element throughout the film without overwhelming it with darkness. Knight described how putting that experience front and center helped to make the film a more universal experience for audiences of all ages.
Even in a faraway land where the rules of time, physics, and mortality can be bent for the purposes of story and mythmaking, Knight found something relatable in Kubo’s journey. Standing at the divide between two generations, he drew strength from being able to see part of his own life in Kubo’s exploits.
Ultimately, “Kubo” is a study in contrasts. To create contrast between the film’s virtuous young hero and the powers that seek to defeat him, Knight and his team play with shadows both literal and figurative. Knight said drawing that clear distinction makes those filmmaking triumphs shine all the brighter.
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