The Best Animated Feature category at the #Oscars this year has a lot to offer: Between the clear blue waves of Moana, the inspiring message behind Zootopia, the quiet beauty of The Red Turtle and the incredibly precise stop-motion work that led to My Life as a Zucchini and Kubo and the Two Strings, it's never been so hard to pick a clear winner.
But unlike the Disney tales of self-worth and accomplishment that pack on the good mood and panache, Laika Entertainment's #KuboAndTheTwoStrings is the one that provides the most delicate balance between a colorful children's movie and a darker story, tackling complex issues of loss and pain. In short, Kubo is about death — and the way it handles it is as deep as it is adorable.
'Kubo' Tugs Right At Your Heartstrings
The way Kubo achieves its delicate emotional mix comes in part from the incredible homemade feel of its figurines and settings, which are produced with the most amazing patience and sense of detail. There's a fragility to each component of the movie that brings out the characters' own vulnerabilities, whether they find themselves exposed because of a dangerous craving for power or, on the contrary, unconditional love. As Kubo folds and unfolds his sheets of enchanted origami paper, we watch him take careful steps toward acceptance — of his own self and his family's fate.
The dialogue, meanwhile, finds a wonderful balance between the most touching and heartbreaking revelations, and a deadpan humor that prevents the whole movie from becoming unnecessarily sentimental. Adding the trivial to the meaningful is what really makes the viewer identify with the characters, who, thanks to their daily mishaps, are incredibly relatable despite their extraordinary powers. Take Matthew McConaughey as Beetle: His character might have the most tragic backstory of all, but he's also the perfect comic relief, as he's utterly stupid but possesses more good will and faith than anyone else.
Director Travis Knight: 'I Wanted Us To Be A Restorative Tonic'
This refreshing honesty is at the heart of Laika's work. Travis Knight, the CEO of Laika who stepped in as a director on Kubo, partly found his inspiration in his own life and how he coped with the tragic death of his brother in 2004. As he tells The Hollywood Reporter:
"I wanted to approach [the subject of death] with sincerity and honesty. The understanding that while [the dead] are not physically with us, we can carry them with us in our lives — that's the understanding and resolution Kubo comes to in the movie. It took me years to come to that resolution myself."
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The toughness of the situations that Kubo is faced with on his journey, and the way he manages to overcome every obstacle, despite intense moments of fear and doubt, is also a great reminder that we tend to underestimate children's abilities to handle more somber themes. Knight perfectly understands the importance of more subtle children's entertainment:
"Seeing the kinds of things my kids were subjected to, the vapid sensory assault of so much entertainment geared towards families. I didn't want to be a part of that. I wanted us to be a restorative tonic."
We're used to hailing Pixar as the ultimate studio for animation that'll speak both to children and parents on different levels, but the dark and poetic undertone of movies such as Kubo and the Two Strings is truly unique, and deserves to be appreciated by all. Hopefully the Academy will turn at least one of Kubo's two nominations (for Best Animated Feature and Best Visual Effects) into a win.
Have you seen any of Laika's movies? Which one is your favorite?