If you must blink, do it now.
Thus begins Kubo and the Two Strings, the tale of a young hero with a magical three-stringed instrument, or shamisen, and his quest to defeat the Moon King. Beautifully animated, Kubo unabashedly wears its heart, all pink and raw, on its sleeve. But what else would we expect from Laika, an animation studio that’s proven to be so remarkably consistent in the 10 years since its creation?
Over the past decade, the studio has kept the art of stop-motion animation alive. Their films — Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls — are a unique combination of classic animation and computer-generated enhancements. Originality and innovation are the hallmarks of Laika films. Just ask CEO and president Travis Knight, who makes his directorial debut with Kubo.
“We want to make movies that are meaningful,” he told MTV News on the eve of the film’s release last week. “We’re not interested in making little pop-culture confections. We’re not interested in being a sequel factory. We’re interested in telling new and original stories.”
Kubo and the Two Strings is certainly the studio’s most ambitious tale to date. Set in ancient Japan, the film follows Kubo (Art Parkinson), who by day tells stories to the people of a local village, using his shamisen to bring origami figures to life. His favorite tale is that of a brave samurai called Hanzo and the warrior’s quest to defeat the wrathful Moon King. By night, Kubo cares for his sickly mother in their sparse cliffside home.
When Kubo accidentally awakens a nefarious spirit — the dreaded Moon King — from the past, his mother sends him on a quest to unlock his family legacy and defeat the evil spirit once and for all. He’s aided by his two faithful guardians: Monkey (Charlize Theron) and the endearingly clueless Beetle (Matthew McConaughey).
For Knight, Kubo is a “film that’s about family, inspired by family.” Though originally conceived by character designer Shannon Tindle, Knight took a personal interest in the film, and after working in animation for more than 20 years, he decided it was time to direct.
“I didn’t want to take anything on that I didn’t feel a real, personal connection to,” Knight explained. “When I was a kid, I was an obsessive fan of fantasy epics. I loved C.S. Lewis and L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll. [J. R. R.] Tolkien was the biggest one. In fact, when my mom was recovering in the hospital after I was born, she was reading Lord of the Rings, so it’s almost like it was embedded in my genetic code to love this kind of story — the incredible hero’s journey.”
In many ways, Kubo is inspired by Knight’s mythical childhood heroes and the “otherworldly” trip to Japan he took with his father as an 8-year-old kid from Portland, Oregon. Like any great Chosen One’s journey, Kubo and the Two Strings grapples with loss and tragedy, but no theme is more important to Kubo’s story than that of forgiveness. The film’s tender conclusion not only subverts the notion of what a happy ending should look like, but it also finds redemption for its morally nebulous characters — a far cry from Archibald Snatcher’s grisly demise in The Boxtrolls.
“Everybody loves to see the villain get defeated. It’s incredibly cathartic, but that’s not what this film is about,” Knight explained. “It’s not about vengeance, even though [there’s] a time in the film where all Kubo wants is to seek revenge. It explores grief and loss and what they do to us, even for a beautiful soul like Kubo.”
Kubo’s conclusion may very well be the most conventional resolution of any Laika film to date, but it feels more than earned — and deeply satisfying. That’s what Laika does best: mixing the darkness of humanity with the light. “I think if you’re always in the sunlight, you’re never going to have the full range of experience,” the director said. “So by passing through the shadows, which we do in all of our movies, the light becomes that much more beautiful.”
Still, the film is as thrilling as it is pure, thanks in part to the sheer magnitude of what Knight and his team have created. There’s a reason larger animation studios don’t bother with stop-motion animation: It’s an incredibly time-consuming, arduous effort that involves moving character models around on set by hand and shooting individual movements. For a fantasy epic like Kubo, the process was even more grueling as there were more than 70 separate sets and multiple large-scale action sequences.
Knight approached the process “as if it was a stop-motion David Lean film.” However, unlike the late Lean, Laika didn’t have any sprawling soundstages to work with; they had a bunch of “gussy-upped table tops in a crummy warehouse outside of Portland.” But they made it work.
From a giant, 16-foot, 400-pound skeleton on a rotating base to an 11-foot, H.R. Pufnstuf eyeball monster, there were many challenges for Knight and his team — most notably, a complicated fight sequence at sea that took 18 months to animate. The scene — which features a boat comprised of 250,000 leaves, each applied by hand — was one of the most difficult shots to put together.
“We had to develop a water system that was a combination of practical effects that we shot onstage — everything from rippled panes of shallow glass, to torn bits of paper for whitecaps, to a big metal grid we covered in shower curtains and garbage bags that we shot a frame at a time,” he said. “Then we gave that to our visual effects team. ... One of the very first shots that came off the stage was this boat that was smashing through the water. It was 18 months later that that shot was finally finished coming out of visual effects.”
Laika’s strength lies in its fearless core team, who have been together since the studio’s humble beginnings. Knight credits his team for consistently pushing the boundaries of technological and artistic innovation — and celebrating when appropriate.
“When we finally finished that shot, a year and a half later, the visual effects department built a piñata of Kubo’s boat and they proceeded to beat the hell out of it,” Knight laughed. “They smashed it with savage glee. And instead of filling it with candy, they filled it with those little booze bottles you get on flights.”
However, for Knight, the more important thing to get right — and the thing that was just as difficult — were the moments of stillness. In Kubo, two characters can say so much to each other without communicating a single word. It’s as simple as a look or a subtle, tender movement.
According to Knight, for these moments to resonate emotionally, the audience has to see these characters as living, breathing things. “They can’t see them as an assemblage of steel and silicone and cloth,” he said. “They have to think that these characters are going through emotions and they have these aspirations and pain and vulnerabilities — a little heaving of the chest, little bits of breathing, shifting away. ... That’s just as hard but more important to get right than the big, crazy spectacle.”
Animators are keen observers of movement. In order for animated characters to feel real, they need to have ticks and idiosyncratic bits of movement, and that’s achieved by knowing how things move. Twenty years ago, Pixar animators nailed their own sneakers to wooden planks to better understand how toy soldiers move; for Kubo, Knight and his team spent a lot of time throwing paper in the air to mimic Kubo’s own ability to move origami paper.
“If we have paper falling, let’s see how it happens,” Knight said. “We’ll blow it with fans, we’ll photograph it, we’ll shoot it with video just to see how it actually moves, and then you stylize it in the film. Oftentimes, animators will do that with their own bodies. They’ll act things out. If a character’s got to trudge up a hill, we’ll film that and ask, What’s happening with your body? What are you doing with your weight? We have to understand that before we can then stylize it in the movie.”
With Kubo, Laika adds a layer of delicacy to its richly evocative house style. At a time when larger animation studios are producing sequels (Finding Dory, Kung Fu Panda 3), capitalizing on popular franchises (The Angry Birds Movie), or doling out innocuous CG films (The Secret Life of Pets), Laika is fearless for its constant innovation. Now, with two more films in development — Wildwood, based on Colin Meloy’s fantasy novel, and Goblins, adapted from Philip Reeve’s children’s story — Laika continues to elevate the art of storytelling.
“I think people who think they have Laika figured out will have to reexamine that definition when they see some of the things we have coming down the road,” Knight said. “They’re so unlike anything that we’ve ever done before. They travel to different worlds. They’re different genres, tonally and aesthetically. That’s really exciting to me, that restlessness that we have to tell different stories.”
“We’re trying to fight the good fight,” he added. “As an industry, the pendulum has swung in one direction where it’s effectively been defined by franchises and brands and reboots and remakes and sequels and prequels. But we want our films to mean something. For us at Laika, because we are a studio that’s run by artists, that’s never something we lose sight of.”
When it comes to Laika, it’s best not to blink.