Stop-motion films should probably come with a quality guarantee. Anything that takes that long to make – animators spending weeks repositioning models just to record two seconds of a character turning their head and blinking – is likely to be a carefully handled project. That’s certainly the impression you get from the trailer for Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest animation from Laika, the studio behind Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls. "Ooh, a Japanese-themed stop-motion film about magic and samurais and talking snow monkeys – that can’t possibly be as depressing as this Jason Bourne film I’m about to watch," I thought. Subsequently, I went into this with expectations so high I would have been rendered a despondent mute had they not been met.
Within the first 15 minutes I knew that wasn’t going to be the case. After a stunning opening sequence and a satisfyingly melancholic set-up to the story, I was already telling myself this is the best stop-motion animation I have ever seen. I’m not sure how impressive that is having only really enjoyed approximately two other films in this medium, but hey, if you can top a house-sized peach and a jewel-stealing penguin, you’re doing rather well.
Kubo and the Two Strings, which sounds like a Japanese folk band, tells the story of a young boy who can make origami come to life by plucking away on his shamisen. When Kubo (Art Parkinson) accidentally stays out past sunset, his evil grandfather (Ralph Fiennes) and aunties (both voiced by Rooney Mara) track him down. They want to steal his one remaining eye, which will supposedly make him immortal. Not fond of the idea of being blind for eternity, Kubo goes in search his father’s magic armour, with the help of a Japanese macaque (Charlize Theron) and a massive samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey).
At this point, it’s worth mentioning that this is meant to be a film for kids. Now, I don’t know about you, but the idea of eye-gouging witches and evil spirits makes even my sphincter tighten, especially when they look like something that lives inside Tim Burton’s head. It’s also incredibly morbid; lots of hanging around graveyards and talking about death. It’s like a Christmas party for necrophiliacs. Apart from convincing children to never go outside again, parents will wonder what the benefits are of watching something as cheerful as a dead dog.
But there is an underlying message about the importance of memories and family – that’s where Kubo’s heart can be found. In that respect, it takes on the storytelling style of Studio Ghibli anime, meaning a lot of things don’t make a great deal of sense: being blind enables you to "see" more and the quest for the armour is as consequential as the colour of my underwear. Yet there’s still a resounding sense of quality here. I suppose the stop-motion, CGI-layered animation is always going to be beautiful when a team of puppeteers spends 19 months making a leaf rustle.