You might think this curious, because Perseus was Greek, and the world where Kubo lives is undoubtedly a stylized version of feudal Japan. The mixing of East and West continues through the story, a largely by-the-book Hero’s Journey sprinkled liberally with concepts from Shinto and Japanese folklore. It’s the mark of a team of young filmmakers, led by Travis Knight, who have clearly grown up steeped in manga, anime, and Studio Ghibli.
Instead of hailing from Tokyo, Knight’s animation studio Laika is based in Portland, Oregon, and Knight’s father Philip is the co-founder of Nike. Laika is the studio behind great-looking stop motion films such as Coraline, but this is CEO Travis’ first credit as director, which might lead the more cynical among us to dismiss Kubo as a rich guy’s vanity project—or a shot across the bow of the Disney battleship.
The real star of the show is the seamless blend of advanced stop motion animation and CGI, which Laika use to create stunning, hyperreal images, such as an underwater garden of malign, staring eyes, and a boat made of orange fall leaves.
When he leaves the familiar environs of his village, Kubo awakens in a featureless, snowy landscape. There’s no shortage of eye-popping set pieces in the film, but this little moment of visual restraint stuck out as proof that Laika’s head is in the right place. A lesser film would have been afraid to bore its audience by going blank, but Knight and company let the landscape’s lack of landmarks reflect their hero’s psychic dislocation. Kubo’s visuals are not just knockout gorgeous, they’re always in service of character and story.
This is the model of contemporary corporate filmmaking that has recently seen so many specularly expensive failures. A plucky little studio, both geographically and spiritually removed from the Hollywood sausage factory, has beat the majors at their own game, and they’ve done it for a fraction of the cost.
The dog days of August is when Hollywood traditionally dumps the losers from their summer line ups, but with Kubo and the Two Strings, they’ve saved the best for last.