‘Lord of the Rings’ and Nike are behind the beauty and craft of ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’

Monsters, journeys across stormy seas, and a quest for a storied suit of armor make stop-motion pic Kubo and the Two Strings an action-adventure – but at the heart of this samurai epic is the moving and intimate tale of a family.

In a fantastical world inspired by ancient Japan, young Kubo cares for his sick mother on the outskirts of their village, where he entertains villagers with his magically-moving origami shows. Then one day, he”s whisked off on a quest to find the magical armor that belonged to his late father, a great samurai warrior.

“Kubo is basically a proxy for me,” director Travis Knight told press visiting Laika, the animation studio behind Kubo and Coraline, in June. “He”s a storyteller, he”s an animator, really, when you think about it.”

Another way Kubo channels the director: his connection to his mother.

“When I was a kid, my mom was like Kubo”s mom for me,” Knight told me in a phone interview earlier this month. “She was the center of my universe. She was everything to me. She was my closest friend in the entire world. 

“As we developed the story, I found I saw so much of myself in this boy and in his relationship with his mother and his longing for his relationship with his father.” 

The director, who is also the CEO of Laika, can see his mom”s love of fantasy as an influence on Kubo – she read The Lord of the Rings both when she was pregnant with Travis and in the hospital after his birth – but the fascination with Japanese culture comes from his father Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike, who brought Travis along on a business trip to Japan when he was eight years old.

“Growing up on the west coast of America in Portland, OR, I“d never experienced anything like it,” Travis recalled. “I was so completely enthralled by the entire thing. It was a revelation to me. That was really the beginning of this lifelong love that I”ve had with this incredible, beautiful culture and its transcendent art.”

Image credit: Focus Features

As the CEO of Laika, Travis followed in his dad”s business footsteps, but he”s been on a path quite different from his billionaire father”s. After dabbling in a music career as a rapper (he released one album in 1993, under the name Chilly Tee), he joined what was then Will Vinton Studios, before it became Laika, as an intern where his father had made a financial investment. Travis has had a creative side to him since he was a child, when he filled up sketchbooks with drawings and comics. But it wasn”t the first time a Knight son set out on a career divergent from his father”s, as Phil Knight”s father (and Travis grandfather) was at turns a lawyer, a politician, and a publisher of Portland”s daily afternoon newspaper, The Oregon Journal.

“When his son, my father, told my grandfather what he wanted to do for a living, when he was in his 20s, that he wanted to make fancy running shoes, my grandfather's reaction was like, ‘Oh my – Where did I go wrong?”” Travis said, then recalled his own foray into a career with puppets in stop-motion animation: “When I told my dad that I had a deep and abiding love of playing with dolls for a living, I think he saw a little bit of his own experience in that whole thing.”

Director and animator Travis Knight working on Kubo“s village set. Photo credit: Steve Wong Jr./Laika Studios

In the Nike co-founder”s candid memoir, Shoe Dog, published earlier this year, Phil Knight often mentions how he regrets not spending more time with his sons. But Travis contends both of his parents have “always been incredibly supportive” of his creative endeavors.

At the time of my interview with Travis, his parents hadn”t yet seen Kubo, but he had screened the film with his wife and three children.

“They definitely saw parts of our lives together on the screen,” the director said. “That was one of the greatest parts of this whole experience, to be able to share this thing with my kids as part of our story together and to have them enjoy it, to have them be moved by it.”

At the end of Kubo”s closing credits, Travis included a touching dedication and thanks to his parents, wife, and kids, using the elegant little string of words introduced by the film”s characters.

Image credit: Focus Features

Kubo and the Two Strings is also movie that delves into what comes after loss and how we remember our departed family members – something the Knights have certainly dealt with themselves, as Travis” older brother, Matthew, died in 2004 at age 34 while scuba diving. The way Kubo beautifully handles death is inspired both by traditional Japanese veneration of ancestors and by Knight”s own family.

“As you develop these things, you end up exposing different aspects of yourself,” Travis said. “These things that you typically keep shrouded and protected. They”re intimate details of your own life that you don”t want out there for the world. It”s something that”s paradoxical – in order to tell something that”s meaningful, that”s intimate, actually, the deeper you can dive into the personal, the more universal it becomes.

“For me, the film fundamentally is about the stories and the examples that our parents give us and how our stories continue on in our children.”

Kubo and the Two Strings opens in theaters this Friday, August 19.