Animation film driven by passion

Kubo And The Two Strings may have poor box-office showing, but its director Travis Knight says creating a work with integrity matters more

Kubo And The Two Strings opened in mid-August in its home market and too few people noticed. It is arguably the most ambitious work of stop-motion puppetry, but that is apparently not enough to lure Americans in great numbers.

It had the worst box-office opening of any work from its producer, Laika, maker of Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012)

The film's director, Travis Knight, stuck to positive messages when he spoke to The Straits Times on the telephone last weekend.

"We want to make films that matter," he said from Laika's home base in Portland, Oregon. Kubo is his directing debut.

The worst part of this is that Kubo, a fantasy story set in ancient Japan, is this year's best animated work so far. Like Laika's other pictures, such as The Boxtrolls (2014), it features a kid hero who plucks up the courage to face the things that scare him.

Kid hero Kubo goes on a quest with a grumpy monkey.
Kid hero Kubo goes on a quest with a grumpy monkey. PHOTO: UIP

But it lacks the stuff that rings cash registers: princesses, songs, saintly parental figures or goofy sidekicks voiced by comedians - the staple of films from major studios such as Disney.

Instead, Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a serious child, somewhat worn down by care. His companions on his quest are a grumpy monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and Beetle, an insect-warrior with memory issues. Beetle is fun, but he is voiced by actor Matthew McConaughey rather than a comedian.

Knight, 43, said: "Of course, we would love our films to be financially successful. The benefit is that we get to make more movies.

"But we have to strike a balance. We love original stories, diving into new genres."

He is not some artist spouting feel-good statements. As Laika's chief executive, he has the power to walk the talk. This mission to create work with artistic integrity is why, as he said in other interviews, Laika will not follow up the commercially successful Coraline with a sequel. The film earned more than US$120 million (S$163 million) worldwide.

Knight believes that in time, Laika's body of work will vindicate its approach.

He said: "People will take notice in the fullness of time. Kubo is the most critically acclaimed work we've made - it moves people, it means something to them."

Besides running the company, Knight also paid his dues as an animator on all four Laika features, including Kubo. Animators on stop- motion projects move the puppets bit by bit over a series of still photographs. The images are then projected rapidly in sequence to give the illusion of motion.

The stunning production design of Kubo has echoes of the work of classical Japanese artists of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Hokusai, creator of the iconic print, The Great Wave, frequently seen on posters.

In the opening scene, Kubo's mother is in a boat, tossed about in a storm. Several times, the tiny boat is at the mercy of giant breakers.

"That's our nod to Hokusai. But our single greatest influence is the artist Kiyoshi Saito," said Knight, referring to the 20th-century printmaker, who made his name with bold, colourful, simple images of everyday life in rural Japan.

The design team was inspired by one of Saito's trademark quirks: woodgrain patterns in his prints caused by the woodblock soaking up and distributing ink unevenly across its surface. Printmakers traditionally saw woodgrain as a flaw, but Saito embraced it. It inspired Laika's artists to create textured surfaces on characters and in backgrounds.

"In the backgrounds, sometimes we'd take walnut shells and press it into the paint. The texture helps to give everything a unified design. We shot on 17 stages, with 30 puppets, just for the Kubo character. The texture helps us make sure it looks and feels like one place," he said.

For the voice actors, Knight and his team had drawn up a shortlist - McConaughey was on it to play Beetle, the addle-brained warrior who joins Kubo on his quest.

The director said: "He had never done animation before. But he's got a rich, beautiful voice.

"We wanted him to play a character who was a rogue, who had machismo and also vulnerability."

The actor, while mulling over whether to take the part, decided to let his children be the judge. He read the script to them as a bedtime story and their approval helped him make up his mind.

But there was another issue: McConaughey's distinctive Texan accent. The speech pattern is as closely identified with the actor as much as Woody Allen is with his New York accent or Ian McKellen with his Shakespearean tones.

The drawl would not fit in with the flat, Midwestern American tone the film's creators selected for this particular fantasy universe. Even English actor Ralph Fiennes, who voices the Moon King, would have to fall in line.

Knight knew he was taking a risk that McConaughey might lose his unique power as an actor without the drawl. He is aware that the final effect for most moviegoers hearing Beetle will be a nagging sense of familiarity, but unless they know the credits going in, the actor's identity might be hard to pinpoint.

"It's really interesting. It's not recognisably Matthew McConaughey, but it still has that earthy, gritty charm that you associate with him."

•Kubo And The Two Strings opens in cinemas tomorrow.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2016, with the headline 'A young boy's courageous quest'. Subscribe