Ask anybody whose job entails seeing all of the new, big movies – or even anybody who just does that for fun – and you’ll discover that this has been a destitute summer at the cinema, even by the already low standards of the season. The mainstream, studio releases have ranged from loathsome at worst to just barely tolerable at best, with each successive giant movie (Alice Through the Looking Glass, Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence, Jason Bourne, Suicide Squad) somehow, somehow, worse than the last.
Yet there is, it seems, something resembling a light at the end of the tunnel. Over the course of 24 hours last week, I saw The Little Prince, Pete’s Dragon, and Kubo and the Two Strings – three films ostensibly aimed at children, but which marshal a sense of wonder, adventure, and emotion that has eluded most of the multiplex this summer. The fact that this kind of craft and maturity is apparently more likely to occur in a family movie says a lot about what filmmakers and studio heads think of their audiences, no?
Kubo comes to us via the wonderful folks at LAIKA, the stop-motion studio responsible for Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls. They again use their distinctive visual style and idiosyncratic scripting to tell the kind of story that doesn’t usually find its way into mainstream family films – in this case, a young boy in ancient Japan who uses his guitar (and considerable magic) to battle the spirits that tore apart his family many years before.
This is, first of all, pretty dark stuff; we find out early on that Kubo’s blind grandfather took one of the baby’s eyes, and along the way we experience a badly damaged mother (I mean, hard to blame her), the nightmare fuel of his creepy-masked aunts, and no small amount of peril. But director Travis Knight and screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler remember what the best family filmmakers know: that kids can handle difficult material, particularly when it’s at the service of a good old-fashioned adventure like this one, complete with dark caves and magic swords and thrilling battles and an epic quest.
And they couple those elements with some genuinely stunning and haunting images: a boat of leaves, a garden of eyes, Kubo’s magic origami figures that fold themselves at his command (and sometimes without it). It’s beautifully rendered, as you’d expect from LAIKA, but more than empty craft; the stop-motion gives it the handmade touch of great folk art, which meshes smoothly with the kind of passed-down oral storytelling tradition it’s ultimately about, both explicitly and subtextually. “Your story will never end,” we are told, and at the film’s conclusion, when a character confesses, “I seem to have forgotten my story,” the sequence is as moving as it is stirring – because, in that case, it’s not a tragedy, but a blessing.
Kubo is not without its flaws – most glaringly, a story set in ancient Japan where the key characters are voiced by the likes of Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey – and a fair number of the jokes don’t really work, seeming to rely on McConaughey’s comic timing a bit more than they should’ve. But it’s a gorgeous, memorable piece of work, taking risks and flights of fancy that most modern movies, family-targeted or otherwise, barely contemplate. And perhaps they’re right; LAIKA’s films do fine, sometimes better than that, but not exactly Pixar numbers, and those seem to be all that counts as success these days, on the heels of Pete’s Dragon’s disappointing box office and Paramount offloading The Little Prince to Netflix (it’s hard to decide what’s more depressing: that they decided they couldn’t sell a family film that unique, or that they were probably right). But if Kubo ends up doing a fraction of Finding Dory’s box office, the giant should still look out, because this is the kind of intelligent, daring work they used to do, before they turned into a sequel factory.
Kubo and the Two Strings is out Friday.