The muscular directorial debut of Laika president and CEO Travis Knight, "Kubo and the Two Strings" follows 2009's "Coraline
," 2012's "ParaNorman
," and 2014's "The Boxtrolls
" as the latest entry to deepen the Oregon-based studio's motion-capture footprint. Their films, decidedly more idiosyncratic than Disney and Pixar's animated output and certainly more grown-up than the releases of Universal's Illumination Entertainment and 20th Century Fox's Big Sky Studios, play to their own beat, at their own pace, never pandering to children or the gods of mainstream commerciality. The Japan-set "Kubo and the Two Strings" is Laika's most creatively intrepid project yet, awash in a visual poeticism and narrative sophistication uncannily reminding of the works of Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli. While the picture may prove challenging and intense for younger audiences, it should also earn their attention and expand their imaginations in a way not often seen within Hollywood's family-film market.
In Ancient Japan, young Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a master storyteller, delighting the people of his village with his origami creations and thrilling tall tales of danger and mysticism. As an infant, he narrowly escaped with his mother after his left eye was snatched by his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Years later, Kubo's emotionally scarred mother still fears the Moon King and her two evil Sisters (Rooney Mara) will return for his other eyea concern which very soon proves to be prophecy. Accompanied by the protective, tough-loving Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a Warrior Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) with ties to Kubo's late samurai father, the boy embarks on a perilous journey to find three itemsa sword, a helmet and metal armorthat will help to protect him against his grandfather's wrath.
"Kubo and the Two Strings" is a stirring experience, not least for its almost unimaginable technical achievements. Stop-motion is the toughest, most time-consuming of animated forms, each element within the image moved frame by frame to create an entirely different world from our own. This medium is always impressive, but it is especially awe-inspiring here when considering the complexity demanded by this particular story and setting. Every moment is aesthetically gorgeous and lyrically considered, from the rocky, stormswept seas of the opening scene as Kubo and his mom sail to safety, to the ethereal tranquility of a cemetery at river's edge where villagers come to commune with those who've passed on, to the eerily threatening run-ins with a giant skeletal beast, the witchy Sisters, and finally the Moon King.
The screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler threatens becoming convoluted early on as exposition and a family tree of pivotal characters mount, but quickly reclaims focus without continually needing to spoon-feed its more esoteric happenings to the viewer. Likewise, while the unhurried pacing leads to a lag in momentum a little past the midway point, the strength of the characters and ideas leads to a captivating third act. Voicing the role of Kubo, Art Parkinson (2015's "San Andreas
") gives his hero not only a youthful energy, but also a strong-willed gumption. He is an immediately sympathetic figure. Charlize Theron (2015's "Mad Max: Fury Road
") runs away with her scenes, bringing a much-needed burst of dry humor and ultimate warmth to her motherly Monkey, a wooden charm brought to life just when Kubo needs her most. Also impeccably cast is Rooney Mara (2015's "Carol
"), her flat, maniacally-timbered line deliveries serving the intensely creepy Sisters well.
A meditative adventure highlighted by its own wondrous artistry, "Kubo and the Two Strings" delves into touchy, soulful themes involving mortality, redemption, and the importance of keeping deceased loved ones alive through memories. Kubo is not a stranger to death, having lost his father when he was still a baby and grown up in a spiritually alive landscape. It is for these reasons he respects the process of life, even in its relative brevity. To give himself over to his grandfatherto the promise of an eternal existencewould be dishonest. "All stories," Kubo says to the Moon King with newfound courage and wisdom in his voice, "have an ending." Fantastical and innovative, distinctively vivid and reflective, "Kubo and the Two Strings" is destined to deepen and beautify all the more with subsequent viewings. It is an exciting prospect to see what Laika will dream up next.