Once again, the animation masters at Laika Studios have given us an enchanting, haunting, engaging and visually stunning film that adds another chapter to their roster of superb storytelling — building on the artistry of their previous efforts. As was the case with Laika’s “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” and “The Boxtrolls,” animator-turned-director Travis Knight here presents a tale that is original yet also very familiar — touching on such themes as loyalty, love of family, fear and revenge.
Most important, like all well-made animated films,”Kubo and the Two Strings” will resonate strongly with both the younger target audience and the adults who will be accompanying their kids to the multiplexes.
The central focus of the story is young Kubo, a boy who is far more mature than his age, living in a fictional, medieval period in ancient Japan. Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson from “Game of Thrones”) is the caregiver to his single mother, with whom he lives in a cave far above the small seaside village where he daily goes to eke out their meager existence. He does this by telling fantastical stories to the populace in the central market square — illustrated by the magical origami paper art figures he seemingly whips out of thin air. Those scenes of Kubo creating his creatures and characters are but one of many, many examples of the genius of the Laika artists — using their incredible stop-motion animation techniques to set the stage for this epic journey.
A key element is the sense of looming danger that awaits Kubo. That feeling is established in the film’s opening scene, where we see the infant Kubo and his mother being tossed around on an angry sea in the midst of a terrible storm. The magic that is central to this story is immediately showcased for us and is woven throughout the entire film. An important moment comes when Kubo accidentally summons up a secret spirit that throws our young hero into a quest to wage an ancient struggle of good vs. evil — surprisingly positioned amid some of Kubo’s own family members, who are out to both co-opt him and destroy his soul.
On this amazing journey, Kubo is joined by a couple of entertaining and engaging characters: the very watchful Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) whose mission is to guard and protect Kubo along the way. The film’s title refers to Kubo’s shamisen, the stringed musical instrument that will eventually unravel the mystery at the core of screenwriter Marc Haimes’ intriguing story. While I don’t want to reveal any key plot points, it is important to know that Kubo’s long-held desire is to find out the truth behind the loss of his absent father — once known as the greatest samurai warrior of his era.
I cannot stress enough how truly stunning the brilliant visuals are in this movie. Laika has again crafted a world that is such an original vision, one that will live on as a new classic in the world of animation.
However, while there are so many thrilling moments of action and peril in “Kubo,” there are a number of times when the pacing falls off a bit, and one feels the film is dragging somewhat. Fortunately, those moments are few and far between and the overall effect of this wonderful piece of cinema is spot-on.
Focus Features presents a film directed by Travis Knight and written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler. Running time: 101 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril). Opens Friday at local theaters.