From its opening image — of a distraught woman battling massive ocean waves on a moonlit night — to its surprisingly ambiguous final shot — of what, I won’t say — Kubo and the Two Strings sears itself into your brain. The stop-motion animation studio Laika has perfected, over the past decade or so, its own style of aesthetically acute storytelling: Previous efforts have remained indelible thanks to their striking, evocative visuals.
I don’t remember much about the plot of Coraline (2009), but I’ll never forget its terrifying half-human, half-spider villain, the Other Mother, cackling and screaming inside her giant web. Kubo isn’t quite as nightmare-inducing as that film, or as viscerally unsettling as the pungent body-horror fable The Boxtrolls (2014), which was set in a world strewn with garbage and cheese. But it’s clearly made by people who understand that the border between classic children’s stories and horror lies deeper in the neighborhood of horror than we might assume.
The mood is that of creeping dread. Young Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) lives with his haunted mother on a jagged cliff overlooking a Japanese fishing village. Mom, injured in that opening battle with the sea, has trouble remembering her past. At night, she falls into trances that send reams of origami paper into frenzied whirlwinds around their desolate cave, as if her mind were trying to tell us something. Her son has inherited her abilities: Every day, Kubo goes into town and animates origami soldiers and monsters with the power of his shamisen — a traditional three-stringed, lute-like instrument.
We get snippets of backstory, pieced together through Kubo’s music and his mother’s patchy memories: The boy’s father, Hanzo, we learn, was a legendary warrior who fell in love with Kubo’s mother, the daughter of the ruthless Moon King. Mom fled to protect her newborn child from her vindictive family, and as long as the boy doesn’t venture out at night — when, presumably, the Moon King and mom’s menacing sisters might find him — they’re safe. Well, guess what the kid then goes and does.
Most of Kubo follows the boy on a quest to retrieve Hanzo’s mythical armor while being chased by his demonic aunts. He’s accompanied on his journey by the stern Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron), a wood carving come to life, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a former samurai who’s been turned into a giant man-insect. The back-and-forth between the questing child, the disciplinarian primate and the goofy insect-warrior is funny enough, but not in that indulgent, let’s-stop-the-story-for-some-talking-animal-jokes kind of way. There’s a unity of style and scale to everything Laika does — far more so than with, say, the films of Pixar, which for all their elegance will often slip into extended, indulgent comic bits or build toward wild, slapstick climaxes.
Laika is the great formalist of the mainstream animation world. The studio's style can be subtle: Ever since Coraline, I’ve noticed the unnerving silence of Laika's films. Not the lack of dialogue — they actually have plenty — but the deep silence beneath, almost as if somebody’s accidentally turned down the volume on the ambient sound. Listen carefully to the background in a Laika film; there’s a deadly hush that’s subconsciously unsettling. Kubo isn’t afraid to lean into that quiet, to leave pauses between lines and even to let certain things go unsaid, so that we sometimes drift uncertainly in the silence — just long enough to feel a chill.
The visual consistency here is also impressive. Kubo exercises his power on origami, and the film makes that its governing aesthetic. His village is filled with paper umbrellas, paper lanterns, paper dragons, paper fans. Director Travis Knight (who was lead animator on the previous Laika features, and is also the company’s president and CEO) patiently builds these connections shot by shot, so that our hero’s control over paper seems not like a surreal occurrence but like a logical (if extreme) extension of this world. The character designs have the quality of paper sculptures, which highlights their fragility. Everything feels as if it could be blown away or shredded in an instant, so that we sense the gathering menace in our bones.
I realize I’m making this children’s flick sound seriously un-fun. In fact, there’s plenty of action and adventure and humor to carry the young ones along. In some ways, that is the wonder of Kubo and the Two Strings. Older viewers will tune into its melancholy — its battles between memory and loss, its themes of filial piety and betrayal — while younger ones will dig the more basic emotions of Kubo’s epic journey. It’s also why I can’t tell you more about that final shot, or why it’s so beautiful. It will leave some relieved, others reflective. It is an image of both joy and unreachable sadness, not unlike the movie itself.