Travis Knight was only 8 years old the first time he traveled to Japan from his hometown of Portland. That trip had a lasting influence on the film director that comes through his latest work. Knight directed “Kubo and the Two Strings,” a story of adventure and family with a heavy Far East influence.
“The great Zhang Yimou, filmmaker, said that every boy wants either a train set or to make a martial arts movie, and I didn’t have a train set, so this is my martial arts movie,” Knight says.
The film is not only Knight’s vision, but it also falls under the mandate of Laika Studios, the production company that for the past decade has become a leader in stop-motion animation. With movies like “Coraline” and “The Boxtrolls,” the company has pushed to make movies that matter, that tell rich and evocative stories, and are thematically challenging.
In the case of “Kubo,” that means looking at how a young boy deals with the loss of family as told through a world of fantasy locations. He only has the help of an overly protective Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a bumbling Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) to help him.
“For Kurosawa, it was the way he made films, which was this incredible composition, and cutting, and staging and lighting, and his work with shapes,” Knight says. “And for Hayao Miyazaki, I love the way he internalizes and synthesizes and then weaves into his own art different cultural influences.”
Director Travis Knight’s animated movie pays tribute to famous Japanese directors.
The visual elements of the movie show the influence of the Japanese directors, but the voice casting is very American. Knight opted not to use actors of Asian heritage for his major characters. Instead, he selected Irish actor Art Parkinson as the voice of Kubo, while Charlize Theron, who grew up in South Africa, voices Monkey.
Then there’s Texas native Matthew McConaughey, who speaks for Beetle in his first voice work for an animated film. The Oscar winner was excited about being a voice in the film because he hasn’t made a lot of movies that his children have been able to see.
That wasn’t the only reason McCounaughey signed on. He liked the idea that “Kubo” deals with the themes of courage and overcoming your fears.
“I like to say that one of the themes in 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, to get your happy ending,” McConaughey says. “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.”
Theron knew from her first conversation with Knight that he had a very clear picture of what he wanted to do with his movie.
To see the film finally and its celebration of (character and story) so beautifully and seamlessly done, I was so inspired by it.
Actress Charlize Theron
“There was something very clear about what he was trying to set out to do, and I think it was finding a way to kind of tell story through great character but also through a real sense of world,” Theron says. “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.”
Getting to that point was a monumental effort for Knight as “Kubo and the Two Strings” is the biggest production by Laika in its 10-year history. No other project comes close to it in scale.
Knight compares the story line to one of the kind of epic movies that were made by director David Lean but using a stop motion style that only generates a few seconds of footage each week.
Add to that actors who were not overly familiar with voice work and Knight faced a massive challenge with “Kubo.” Theron credits his patience with helping her get through the recording sessions.
“Travis was constantly just really encouraging, finding the truth and being a truth seeker during the whole process, which was quite long. I wouldn’t see him for several months and then I would see him again, and it kind of felt like you were picking up just from where you left off,” Theron says. “I didn’t really see any of the animation stuff until there was kind of like a ‘making of.’ ”