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Why KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS and LAIKA Deserve the Oscar

Why KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS and LAIKA Deserve the Oscar

Like most good stories, this one starts with a contradiction. Laika has been making feature-length movies for less than a decade, but it feels like the animation studio is long overdue for an Oscar win.

Maybe that’s because every movie they’ve made–from Coraline to ParaNorman to The Boxtrolls–has been a boundary-pushing work of painstaking stop-motion beauty. Maybe that’s because every movie they’ve ever made (all four of them!) has been nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar and lost. Maybe it’s because their latest gem, Kubo and the Two Strings, is poised to continue that streak.

After the super popular, billion-dollar-grossing Zootopia won the Annie Award for best picture, almost every Oscar prognosticator has it at the top of their prediction ballot with the Little Laika Engine That Could relegated to second place. Popularity can go along way in the Animated Oscar category.

Which is a shame, because this film absolutely deserves to win, and Laika absolutely deserves to take a turn celebrating their achievements in front of a global audience. The young studio has followed in Pixar’s early footsteps in both innovation and accolades, but not in Oscars, and while they’ve dressed up in cardboard boxes for their art, suffered a decade of hand cramps, and created new methods of blending stop-motion with CGI, the studio now finds itself with a masterpiece on its hands.

It’s funny. Kubo wears its visual wonderment out in the open; the opening impossible wave, the paper warrior, the sinister Sisters, the giant skeleton king, the Garden of Eyes, the Moon Beast swirling and chomping angrily through the village. There are a dozen jaw-dropping sequences, but the film’s expert craftsmanship is also often made invisible in quieter scenes that we take for granted as human, like Kubo walking through the forest or sitting quietly with his mother. Consider the act of making puppets walk through snow. Or sail a boat on a raging ocean. Or closing their eyes in mourning.

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We’re shaking our heads softly in disbelief that this kind of art work can be achieved even while believing deeply in the story being told. It’s rare to be fully suspended in our disbelief and in shock over our recognition of improbable beauty at the same time.

The artistry on display is peerless. Stop-motion has been around for more than a century, but Kubo turns something as simple as drinking a cup of tea into an astonishing feat. The team at Laika has done nothing short of giving a tiny piece of plastic a soul.

The other huge element at play is the story, which takes a lost, young tale-spinner on a journey through fearsome danger to learn about his family and to hold his people together. It’s thrilling in its conviction and ardent in its compassion–a true whirlwind of great imaginative care that’s also joyously surprising in where it ends up. After the climactic battle and the final moments in the graveyard, it’s safe to wryly question how much our young narrator has exaggerated while wanting to carry his magical realism home with you in your back pocket.

Obviously there’s an inherent problem of placing art against art in competition because it makes talking about elevating one appear like you’re diminishing the other, but a win for Kubo would recognize its profound, intrinsic cinematic value and publicly celebrate the tireless creative pursuits of a studio that isn’t satisfied with the status quo.

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In a sense, Kubo‘s mix of nominations have done just that. The heart-plucking fable is only the second Best Animated Feature nominee in history to also score a nomination for Best Visual Effects (Nightmare Before Christmas was the first). The scale of that achievement can’t be understated. Likewise, costume designer Deborah Cook is the first ever to receive a Costume Designers Guild nomination for work on an animated movie in the award’s history. When you see the depth of technique and the overall effect, it’s easy to see why. It’s only through these technical labors of love and knowledge that something like Kubo can come together.

The result isn’t merely an award-worthy film; Kubo and the Two Strings is a rare animated embodiment of cinema itself. A considerable dance between several different crafts resulting in a single, cohesive ballet of sights, sounds, and stories. Blink now, if you must, because it will be a genuine, pleasant surprise if it wins on Sunday. Even if it doesn’t, it’s still thoroughly amazing proof that Laika makes every frame count.

Images: Laika


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