It has been an interesting year for animated movies. Zootopia, Finding Dory, the Secret Life of Pets, Kung Fu Panda 3, and Sausage Party were all very good to great movies, with Zootopia still sitting at the head of the table. However, that has changed with the release of the latest animated movie from Laika, the company behind Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. The movie is Kubo and the Two Strings, and despite its lack of promotion compared to other films, this might be the best-animated movie of 2016.
Much like the rest of the Laika films, Kubo and the Two Strings is a stop-motion animated film and remains as beautiful and inspired as anything the company has done to date. Honestly, the animation in this movie is simply breathtaking.
The movie starts off with Kubo’s mother in a small boat, using her magic to try to survive something that is chasing them. Sadly, she is unable to completely escape and the boat capsized, hitting her head on a rock and washing ashore. Luckily, she survived, as did her son, Kubo, at that time a baby who was missing his right eye. The movie then flashes to years later and now Kubo is a young boy who has to care for his mother, who is now unable to care for herself or Kubo.
Kubo wakes up, fixes breakfast for his mother, and feeds her by hand. He then places her at the entrance to the cave where they live to face and watch the ocean and head to a nearby village. It is here that we learn that Kubo also shares some of the magic that his mother possessed. He has a shamisen, a musical instrument played with three strings, and when he strikes it with his rock, he is able to make his origami paper tell the story of a great samurai who battles monsters as he tries to reach his destiny and defeat the evil Moon King.
The problem is that as popular as Kubo is showing his stories to the village, he can’t finish the story and has no ending.
This is because this is the story of Kubo’s father, the great samurai Hanzo, and Kubo’s mother has been unable to tell him the end of his father’s story as she loses more and more grip on her mental facilities. All that she can tell him is that his father was a great man, her father is who took Kubo’s right eye and he wants to take his left eye along with her two evil sisters. Kubo must never go out after dark because that is when the Moon King and his two daughters can find him.
Of course, Kubo ends up after dark one night when he was unsuccessfully trying to contact his father through a ritual with origami lamps. The evil sisters find him and try to capture him only for Kubo’s mother to rush to his rescue and sacrifice her life to save her son. After this, Kubo finds his small wooden monkey statue has turned into a real talking monkey and must protect Kubo as he searches for the sword, armor, and helmet that his father had hidden. Along the way, they find a former samurai that was cursed and turned into a beetle that agrees to protect the son of Hanso.
The movie is then a chase movie, with Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle running for their lives and Kubo trying to find his destiny. This is an interesting movie. It has all the heart of previous Laika films and is as beautifully animated as anything out there right now. Honestly, Laika is up there on the same level that Pixar was when they were first starting out, and the stop-motion specialty really helps them stand out, with Aardman the only other company that really specializes in the art form.
What really makes this movie succeed is not just the beautiful animation, but the story. This is, at heart, a simple coming-of-age story where a boy becomes a man and fulfills his destiny. However, the script is masterfully done and really makes all the key moments and achievements in his story hit just perfectly when they happen. This movie builds up to a perfect crescendo when Kubo faces the Moon King and then it takes the story in an unexpected and beautiful direction.
Zootopia was the best-animated movie of the year by far, despite some quality competition as the year wore on. However, with Kubo and the Two Strings, it might have fallen from its perch. With beautiful animation and a touching and brilliantly crafted story, Kubo and the Two Strings stands as one of the best movies of 2016, animated or otherwise.