Family films have always tried to balance their appeal between two audiences: children and the parents who drive (and often accompany) them to the show. As I try to make clear in my review of the stop-action film "Kubo and the Two Strings," which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, director Travis Knight does a decent job of hitting both groups:
Stop-action animation has come a long way in the past four decades. And though, yes, stop-action has been around for far longer than that – if nothing else, remember the 1950s cartoon character “Gumby” – it was the year 1974 that changed everything.
That was the year that a guy from Portland, Oregon, named Will Vinton submitted a little 8-minute film, a claymation effort he titled “Closed Mondays,” to the Cannes Film Festival. Not only was the film accepted, but it went on to win an Oscar for Best Animated Short.
Vinton would enjoy other successes, too, not least of which was the ad campaign for The California Raisins. But by the late ’90s, Vinton’s company had run into financial trouble, and Vinton himself was eventually bought out by Nike co-founder Phil Knight – and eventually replaced.
His replacement? Knight’s son Travis. But if nepotism so often can be considered a bad word, it can – at least sometimes – lead to good things. And a few of the good things that the new company, now called Laika, provided were the films “Coraline,” “ParaNorman,” “The Box Trolls” and, now, a fictional tale from old Japan, “Kubo and the Two Strings.”
Using a blend of stop-action and computer-enhanced animation, Knight’s “Kubo” follows the story of a young boy whom we first meet as his mother is fleeing her past. We come to know him as a boy with magical talents, his skills as a storyteller matched by his abilities to strum his three-stringed shamisen and make paper origami figures fly. We also know him as a caretaker, watching over his mother in a remote, ocean-side cave.
Finally, we see him step into the role of burgeoning hero, a boy – protected by a magic monkey and a samurai beetle – charged with finding the three pieces of his lost father’s armor, the only charms that will protect him from his grandfather, the Moon King. In his quest, Kubo has to endure attacks from his two aunts, his mother’s sisters and witches who are doing the Moon King’s bidding.
From the movie’s first line – “If you’re going to blink, do it now” – to its last, “Kubo and the Two Strings” demonstrates well just how far stop-action animation has progressed, even since the early days of Vinton. Using many of the same techniques, which are featured during the movie’s closing credits, Knight smoothes out the process with Laika’s CGI to make the character movements far less jerky.
That, of course, isn’t all. These days, the company can afford to hire A-list talent, which is why Charlize Theron voices the monkey , Matthew McConaughey the beetle, Ralph Fiennes the Moon King and Rooney Mara as the sister witches.
Most impressive to me, though, is Art Parkinson, the 14-yar-old “Game of Thrones” star who gives voice to our protagonist – and who, even at his most heroic, never lets us forget that Kubo is still a boy.
Will Vinton’s company is no more. But the legacy he created lives on, in a film that could next March win its own gold statuette.