SANTA MONICA - Kubo and the Two String is an exquisite, extraordinary, epic adventure story with influences from Japanese culture and mythology. This movie is definitely going to have an Oscar buzz this awards season. It is such a wonderful, immersive experience, thanks to all the artists at Laika and the talented direction of Travis Knight.
I really loved this film. I am part Japanese, so this resonated with me in ways, I never imagined. Connecting me to a culture I had long lost or forgotten about due to living in the States for so long. Travis Knight gave Kubo's story a universal language, crafting a story that appeals to everyone.
Kubo and the Two Strings is comprised of 1,359 shots, 133,096 frames of animation, with a full running time of 101 minutes and 27 seconds. Production took 94 week, with an estimated total of 1,149,015 work hours. An average animator at Laika finished 3.31 seconds of footage per week or 15.9 frames per day.
Kubo is a young boy who spends his days heading to town from a high cliff dwelling above the sea. Every morning, he spins tales with his magical shamisen that bring origami figures to life. The villagers are enthralled by his clever, imaginative storytelling. Kubo is voiced by Art Parkinson, who gave the character an innocence and courage that made you care about Kubo. Brenda Vaccaro voices the old woman Kameyo, who welcomes Kubo every day when he starts his day by giving him a place to sit and advice of what should be in his story.
Other villagers found in this crowd of listeners are Hosato (George Takei) and Hashi (Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa). Kubo goes home every night to take care of his mother, who is fading due to slowly losing her life force. She warns Kubo never ever to come home after dark. He doesn't understand, but knows that his mother is trying to protect him.
Kubo decides to follow a ritual to speak to the dead, part of Obon Festival. The spirits that have passed are believed to return to the world one day every year, as lanterns are hung to guide the ancestors. After they return and have had their visit, the lanterns are put out to the river to return them to the spirit world. Kubo makes his own lantern for his father.
He becomes angry when his father doesn't show up and the night has fallen. A spirit from his past visits him. She is not a kind spirit. As Kubo runs from the spirit, he is met by his mother, who summons magic to give him wings, and tells him to be safe. When Kubo awakens in a cold icy environment, he is met by the not so empathetic Monkey (Academy Award winner Charlize Theron) and later the Beetle (Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey).
Monkey and Beetle join Kubo on his quest through icy blizzards in the Far Lands, to the deep waters of the Eyes, and the Bamboo forest. Through his journey, Kubo becomes more powerful with each step. He finds strength as he battles monsters, the evil twin sisters (Academy Award nominee Rooney Mara), and finally the dark evil of the Moon King (Academy Award nominee Ralph Fiennes). He fights to unite his family to end a curse that has plagued his existence and divided his family.
Travis Knight served as producer/director. He is an Annie Award-winning animator and Academy Award-winning filmmaker who has produced, and been lead animator on Laika's Oscar nominated ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls. He explains that the scale of this production was much larger then most to accommodate the large fantasy environments that Kubo and the other character inhabited.
"I had been looking for something big and expansive and epic in nature that would speak to deep truths about life and childhood," Knight recalls. "Growing up, I was an enormous, obsessive fan of fantasy epics. I was a voracious reader, devouring Tolkein, Greek and Norse mythology, L. Frank Baum and the seminal manga series Lone Wolf and Cub. It was probably no surprise that I was a film geek as well, and enjoyed the epic works of Aklra Kurasawa, Steven Speilberg, Hayao Miyazaki, Ridley Scott, David Lean, and George Lucas. In fact, Star Wars is the first film that I remember seeing in the theater."
It was Knight who responded positively to the pitch by Shannon Tindle, who created the characters and the original story. Marc Haimes developed the story with Tindle and then wrote the screenplay with Chris Butler.
Laika artists began developing Kubo and the Two Strings, as it became a love letter to Japanese culture. The look of the movie is inspired by Japanese art, and in particular, Japanese woodblock printing. Knight remembers taking a trip when he was eight years old to Japan with his father. Though Japan had similarities to his Pacific Northwest life, there were also definite differences. It was a beautiful, breathtaking and otherworldly experience for him. He remembers the way people dressed, the architecture, the food, the art, the music and the wonderful movies and television shows and comic books. It stayed with him throughout his life.
Laika took on the challenges of production of Kubo and the Two Strings with a fierce passion. Laika's studio in Hillsboro, OR, is a 151,140-foot building, housing technology advances and handmade artistic endeavors side by side. Laika was presented with a Science and Technology Academy Award for it's innovative Rapid Prototyping process (RP). Laika reimagined the process to revolutionize facial replacement in stop-motion animation.
For years the puppets head was swapped out to change facial expression in stop-motion. With the breakthrough of rapid prototyping 3D printers, they could create upper and lower portions of the faces. It yielded trays and trays of facial halves.
If you have seen Kubo and the Two Strings, the facial expressions are smooth and flawless. You don't feel that stutter that you felt with older versions of stop-motion. Laika embraces the use of computer generated VFX to enhance the world of their characters, sometimes filling in spots or environment expansion, or for crowd enhancement, and sometimes for intangible additions. The studio pushes the art and technology behind and beyond stop-motion in their storytelling.
The visual reference for the opening scene was an iconic woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai, "The Great Wave of Kanagawa," published in 1830-1833. Simulating the water was a daunting task for rigging supervisor Oliver Jones's unit that took a combination of everything from panes of rippled glass to torn bit of paper to sheets of cloth fixed to metal rods animated one frame at a time to simulate wave movement. After an exhaustive exploration of techniques, the team came up with a basic behavior and look for the sea and brought in VFX supervisor Steve Emerson and his team to recreate the feel of the practical tests combined with greater flexibility and nuance with CG simulations. Leading the charge was lead effects artist David Horsley, who had previously done beautiful water in the movie Life of Pi. This style was a whole different challenge to fit into Kubo's world.
Academy Award-winning composer Dario Marianelli scored the music for Kubo and the Two Strings. He dealt with the task of writing the music for the strings of the shamisen for the animators to animate to since this had to be done so it would match. The score of the movie enhances the experience that Kubo is having, bringing us to closer to him by feeling what he is feeling. Marinaelli says, "You can be a little over the top with an animation score. I can wear my heart on my sleeve a little bit more. The Japanese tonalities and modality influences guided me nicely."
You must see this film to understand the scope of this project and how this score added a finishing touch.
Pictured: Travis Knight
If you haven't been to Universal Studios lately, there is an exhibit called "From Coraline to Kubo: A Magical Laika" experience. It comes with the price of a ticket to Universal Studios, Hollywood theme park. It is located in the Globe Theater. You can see exhibits of some of the most incredible work by Laika from movies like Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and Kubo and the Two Strings. You can see the evolution of the hand crafted stop motion animation process from Laika. Laika gives you a peek behind the curtain to see how the technical process of their work begins. It opened August 5th and now has been extended until August 28th. I recommend you go while you can. It is rare glimpse into the world of Laika. Kubo and the Two Strings will be out August 19th, so if you make it out to Universal Studios theme park, you can see the exhibit and the movie.
Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the best animated films I have seen in a long time. It has a special meaning for me, as I will be taking my mother, who is Japanese, to see this. This is a story that has universal appeal and connects all of us to the characters in this wonderful epic fantasy world that we want to get lost in. Visually, you can't help but notice the finally-crafted artistic world that Laika created, that never ceases to surprise you. This is storytelling as it should be, done with passion and commitment. Travis Knight and his team of artists at Laika deserve a loud applause for their work on this film. This is an instant classic that will give you a story to tell future generations. Go see Kubo and the Two Strings and restore your sense of wonder again.
Photo credits: Laika Studios/Focus Features