With each new release in Laika’s filmography, the stop-motion animation studio’s reputation grows in leaps and bounds as it brings an innovative, cutting-edge approach to a venerable, retro technology to stunningly artful effect. And following such admired works as “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” and “The Boxtrolls,” Laika’s talent alliances have increased in statue as well: for its latest effort, “Kubo and the Two Strings,” producer/director (and Laika CEO) Travis Knight was able to bring Oscar winners in Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey.
Taking its cues and inspirations from the samurai mythology of feudal Japan and placing them within a wholly original story, the film tells the story of Kubo, a young boy who finds himself alone following the deaths of his parents, pursued by ancient spirit forces seeking to settle an old score, unless Kubo can retrieve his legendary father’s mystical armor. Coming to Kubo’s aid are two unlikely mentors, in the form of a tough-loving talking Monkey (Theron) and an anthropomorphized Beetle (McConaughey) who’s more skilled in the ways of combat than social graces .
At a press conference for the film, the two actors revealed their fascination with Laika’s painstaking animation process, the animated favorites from their youths and their own offspring’s reaction to hearing their parents’ familiar voices coming out of animated characters on the screen.
Charlize Theron: From the first moment that I met Travis, when we started having a conversation about this, there was something very clear about what he was trying to set out to do. I think it was finding a way to tell stories through great character but also through a real sense of world. It was very hard for him to talk about character without talking about world. And to see the film finally and the celebration of both of those things so beautifully and seamlessly done, I was so inspired by it really.
I have such admiration for the time and the patience and the passion that has to go into it. We, as actors, kind of step in. The embodiment is so — it’s in broad strokes, right? And with this, it’s painted with such a small brush, such a fine brush. I sit here today in just complete awe of what that is.
Of course on top of all of that, the story to me is incredibly moving and really layered and conflicted, and covers a lot of things that I think we are sometimes scared to address with children. I think it’s so true to what Laika stands for and what their films represented in the sense that there really thematically isn’t anything that you can’t in an interesting way explore through children’s eyes and teach to children. I’m so happy to be a part of it. I never thought I would get to do something like this.
Matthew McConaughey: Laika before and with this has never really made material that pandered to kids. They were always considered adult themes, but things that every child can understand and digest.
I got to watch it with my wife and my two eldest children who are 7 and 5. There were tears — I think my wife said she had cried about 9 times — and then there was also laugher. Also, for an animated film, it was something that my kids saw and they had tough questions afterwards. They enjoyed the ride but they came and asked. They were scared at the right time. They saw someone overcome fears. We got to talk about that. We got to equate that to things in their own life. You don’t get that in every animated film.
So as an adult, we all quite enjoyed it and the kids love it. I think it’s a very impressive piece of work. It was obviously impressive when I met with Travis for the first time to see what and how they do it what they do. And I think it’s fully realized in the final film. I enjoyed it.
On the effect of the lessons built into the film’s narrative:
McConaughey: For me with children, it’s always interesting to see what lessons they get from something that they can watch. Charlize and I haven’t made much that our kids can watch for a long time.
So for me, I’ve had a lot of talks with my kids about courage and overcoming your fears along the way. For me, I like to say one of the themes of this story is you’ve got to fight and you’ve got to have a lot of courage to write the third act of your own story. You get your happy ending. And it may not be exactly what you thought it was going to be but usually if you get to the nut of it, to the truth of it, that’s a lot happier than not finishing the story at all.
Kubo can write Act One and Act Two and we’re all pretty good at that one — actually, sometimes Act Two is kind of a son of a gun. But yeah, it encourages you: you’ve gotta fight for your third act.
On their kids’ reaction to hearing their parents’ voices coming out of their animated alter egos’ mouths:
McConaughey: I had a particularly good experience with that. I took my family to go see it, didn’t tell them exactly what I was doing or how I was a part of it… And when my character, Beetle, first came up, my daughter leaned down and she goes, “Papi! Papi!” I go, “What?” She goes, “That beetle sounds a lot like you.” And I shrugged it off.
It came up on the second scene and she’s like, “Papai! I’m telling you that beetle sounds like you!” So then when the movie was over, she came and she was like, “Was that you?” And I told her yes. I was hot stuff around the house for the next week for sure! For sure.
Theron: The day that I saw it was actually my son’s first day back at school. So I felt wrong to pull him out to come and see the film, but I’m hopefully going to show it to him in a couple of weeks. But he’s seen the trailer several times — he really loves the trailer — and he put it together. It was a very similar experience to Mathew. He was like, “Mom. That sounds like you.” And I just kind of did the same thing because I didn’t want to bust it for him — I wanted him to kind of experience the film just for what it is. And I went, “Really?” and he goes, [suspicious] “Mom!”
And then he was very concerned that the world didn’t know that I wasn’t really a monkey. He was like, “Mom. You have to tell them that you’re not really a monkey!” That was really his only concern. I’m really excited for him to see it. He knows so much about it. I really kind of made him a part of it… This was really kind of something that I really wanted to do for him and I thought of him constantly while making this. I’m really exited for him to see it.
On their interest in Laika’s stop-motion process:
Theron: I think we were all somewhat fascinated by it…I remember seeing some footage of “Boxtrolls” and how they went about doing that. I asked a lot of questions. The first time Travis came in, I knew nothing about it and so I was like, “So. Is it like clay?” I was just so naïve to the whole process and that is what was so exciting to me.
I’ve been doing this for 20 years, longer than 20 years, and the idea of doing something that I logistically knew very little about was so refreshing. The part of the job that I had to bring to it, I was a little worried about because he was so encouraging of me doing it. There was a part of me that was like, “I don’t want to eff this up for you, because I’ve never done this. What is that?”
I think it’s a testament to why they are so successful with the storytelling that they create and go after because it’s so grounded. It’s real. Travis was constantly just really encouraging finding the truth and being a truth-seeker during the whole process. And that was quite long. We wouldn’t see him for several months and then I would see him again. You kind of felt like you were picking up from where you left off, but I didn’t really see any of the animation stuff until there was kind of like a “making of.” I worked with some of the sketches, kind of moving, just to get an idea.
But more than anything, I was kind of working from his brain. And really he was my fountain of information. So I was really getting my inspiration of what was needed to paint on the canvas from him. He’s very good at articulating that.
I think that moment at the end credit roll when you see them actually [animating] — it’s such a really incredibly powerful moment because what they do is so seamless that you forget the time and the effort and the talent and the passion that is behind that. To just have that glimpse of that is just a reminder of “You’ve really watched something incredibly special.”
On the animation they loved while growing up:
Theron: Well the first kind of thing that I can think of is those Looney Tunes. Television only came to South Africa in ’75, ’76 so we were a little late to the game. And then we only had about two hours a night of it. And so it was very, very special when it did come. When I was around 10 or 11, we got VCRs and that was a game changer for me. And so I remember getting the little beta tapes of – God I’m so old! [Laughs] Woo! Beta! Yeah!
Of the Looney Tunes. I remember they were little short, like 8-minute runs. As a kid, I could watch them over and over and over again and then kind of not get bored and laugh at the same jokes and discover something new every single time.
Ironically they still play them on the kind of collective childhood kid channels on cable. And every time I see them and my child is kind of looking for something to watch, I secretly pop it on because I kind of want to give him a little bit of what I had. And he loves it. But it’s changed. What he has access to now is just so enormous. But for me as a kid, that was, I think, my first experience with animation.
McConaughey: I didn’t watch much media growing up, but I do remember the first time seeing “Land of the Lost” on a Saturday morning. And I remember the opening credits and they’d go off into a waterfall — and the world they go off in, that opened me up quite a bit.
And the other one would be “The Incredible Hulk” — Lou Ferrigno on that. You knew you could get him — he was going to get big and green twice in the hour – at 7:22 and 7:41 p.m. It was going to happen twice. If there was an oxygen tank around, which usually there happened to magically be, he was going to throw it in slow motion. It was going to be awesome.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is in theaters now.