Narration in film doesn't need to be a context dump; LAIKA’s hit film exemplifies how narration can elevate storytelling in animation and beyond.
Narration is a storytelling device that is often looked down upon in film. Too frequently do people refer to the inclusion of a narrator voiceover as lazy writing, a means of tacking on setup or context without having to craft it as part of the script.
Examples of this stigma aren't unheard of. It does happen; the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner notoriously forced a voice-over narration to add clarity to the plot – it was not well received. But this is only lazy when done lazily; after all, a poor craftsman blames his tools. LAIKA Studios' Kubo and the Two Strings uses narration to amplify its message, plot, and characters - lessons worth learning for any writer or filmmaker.
What Kubo and the Two Strings does right
When you think "Narrator," you probably think of David Attenborough's descriptive voiceover on various nature programs or an audiobook narrator reading from the pages of a novel. While these are fantastic in their own right – they don't do what the narration in Kubo and the Two Strings does.
Here, Monkey narrates, sharing her backstory and love with Hanzo.
The core of this film melds intrinsically with the art of narration; that is, the act of storytelling. Kubo and the Two Strings' primary message relates to how telling stories breathes life into our thoughts of those who have passed away – ensuring they are never forgotten. Relenting against loneliness and despair by carrying the tales of those we love and sharing this through narration to friends, family, and neighbors is what this film promotes each time narration appears. Blending the beauty of LAIKA's signature stop-motion animation and a diegetic narrator sets a new bar for this voiceover style.
Narrators are far more than just a "lazy" device for context here. They are the lifeblood of the themes, which elevates the art of narration voiceover beyond its typical usage to something remarkable. Kubo and the Two Strings represents the gold standard in narration, paired with an incredible animation style that engrosses audiences in a scene and story, like a kid around a campfire.
"If you must blink, do it now"- narration as a storytelling tool
Kubo and the Two Strings tells the story of Kubo, a boy born from a powerful lineage who lives a hard life of solitude. After his grandfather, the God-like Moon King, comes to take his eye, he must follow in his father's footsteps and journey to reclaim ancient artifacts to defeat the evil that haunts him.
Much of this film's backstory is told through narration, though it avoids the pitfalls that typically plagues narrator voiceover by folding it into the character of Kubo, who is, in essence, a storyteller himself.
The movie opens with Kubo’s mother Sariatu's history, as told by Kubo's narration:
We see Sariatu, alone on the ocean with a baby in her arm. The source and purpose of the disembodied, non-diegetic narration in this scene are unknown; the monologue primarily sets the threat's tone and ultimately introduces the audience to the protagonist, Kubo. It isn't until a couple of scenes later that we realize this narration is more than a device for adding clarity.
Kubo runs puppet shows in the nearby village; he tells the tale of his father, the mighty warrior Hanzo, for the villagers' entertainment. Playing his three-stringed guitar, a shamisen, he magically brings origami to life to play out the scene and accompany his narration. Although this narration is diegetic, unlike the previous instance, we join his show's audience and spectate as he spins a yarn through his puppetry.
He tells the story of Hanzo’s plight as he fights the Moon King, gathering the Sword Unbreakable, The Breastplate Impenetrable, and The Helmet Invulnerable. Unbeknownst to Kubo, this story will become vital to his future adventure, as he will need to find these three items himself to face the Moon King.
In essence, the narration here provides more than just Hanzo’s character background; it foreshadoww the future, informing the audience of the requirements of the quest. The stories that Kubo tells the villagers are more than mere fiction, and their bearing on the story is immense, much more than a simple context dump.
In the latter half of the film, the narrator’s role passes to Kubo's mother, who explains her history, Kubo's origins, and her relationship with The Moon King. This story, from her perspective, reshapes the legend of Hanzo into something more human and relatable. This plugs the final gap in the context of the film and helps Kubo understand his own relationship to The Moon King. The role of narration, it would seem, is to illustrate stories to the audience and characters alike – tales that have an important bearing on the movie's plot.
The relevance of storytelling in Kubo and the Two Strings is more than window dressing. Stories carry actionable and instrumental messages for the future, whether in wisdom, entertainment, or legend.
Therefore, the narrator is vital in this movie; a significant theme at play in this piece relates to the importance of storytelling. The act of passing on tales across generations and communities connects the lonesome Kubo with those around him. In wisdom, he connects with his parents; in entertainment, he connects with the village; in legend, he learns how to complete his mission.
Why it works
So, why does narration in this film work so well? The number one element elevating the film’s narration is that the voice-over is relevant. Characters that take on the role of sharing stories with other characters and, by extension, the viewer. The immersion that comes alongside this draws the viewer to a level of spectatorship on par with those being told the story onscreen – augmenting the effect of the narration.
Part of the problem with poor narration is when voiceover feels misplaced or at odds with the story. If it doesn't enhance the story or feel natural, then it's likely not going to be well-received. In this movie, narration, at the heart of its message, reinforces the importance of storytelling in keeping memories alive.
Ultimately, in the film's conclusion, Kubo and the Two Strings has a proposition. Kubo stands defiantly against the Moon King, surrounded by the souls of the village's lost ones. He tells the Moon King that carrying the stories of those who are gone is about remembrance, memories that live on, and ensuring their stories never end.
To ignore its relevance is impossible as it is expertly woven into the core spirit of the animation. As the main character, Kubo is a storyteller, a musician, and a narrator in his own right. Using narration in this way is vital to making it feel natural and engaging – it adds significant and tangible value to the story. It intensifies the core theme of the film.
Despite commonly being reduced to an intrusive form of voiceover, narration has excellent potential to extrapolate plot points and thematic messaging. As mentioned at the start of this piece, there are lessons to be learned from Kubo and the Two Strings that can be utilized for critique, writing, and animating in the future.
Creativity in Implementation
The excellence of the narration in this movie comes from how integral it is to the storytelling experience. Without the moments of narration accompanied by matching imagery, vital context would be lost, and the film's themes would be diluted. Weaving it into the plot creates a perfect thread for one to strengthen the other.
Immersion in Execution
A poor narrator voiceover can drag an audience out of the viewing experience. Finding interesting applications to seem like a natural inclusion is paramount to quality content. Kubo and the Two Strings achieves this by folding the stories into the movie – an excellent way to ensure the voice-over doesn't feel out of place.
Find the Right Voice
Finding a performer who can produce the ideal sound for your animation is a vital step. They are the connective tissue that bridges the gap between what is occurring onscreen and the audience in the seats. While Kubo and the Two Strings uses a main character as the narrator, there are all kinds of options that fit the story. What matters here is that the speaker is top quality and has a voice that draws in viewers. Casting narrator voices for animation from a reliable source takes the guesswork out of this stage and guarantees professionalism.
Overall, narration is another tool for conveying plot, character, and themes – while it is commonly regarded as simplistic or dull, that is due to its utilization. Kubo and the Two Strings shows how narration can become a centric tether to bring the plot into a strongly woven story. It can augment the viewing experience and add artistic merit to the project its included in. There is no need for this voice-over to be tacked on as an afterthought, it can be an art form unto itself.
Learning how to use this skill can seriously benefit anyone in a storytelling medium – which is why it's so essential to discover and appreciate this art of voice-over.