Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the most original animated films to come along in a while. Visually stunning and emotionally rich, it represents a high-water mark for stop-motion animation by artfully blending it with CGI and other elements of movie magic. Laika Studios, which has brought us Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls, has exceeded itself with this production.
If the opening sequence doesn’t command your attention, nothing will: an Asian woman struggles in her tiny boat against a cascade of gigantic waves, using an unusual tool to cut through the wall of water. This scene is emblematic of the overall film, breathtaking for its look as well as its content. Her tool is also the movie’s visual signature: a piece of origami paper.
Kubo and the Two Strings is an epic “hero’s journey” about a 12-year-old boy whose forelocks cover a missing eye. Every day he goes to the center of his village and holds the townspeople spellbound with his stories and magical origami figures. Back home in the seaside cave where they live, his mother worries for him. She is getting weaker by the day and won’t be with him long. He hasn’t other family to turn to: his father was a samurai who died protecting them, his grandfather took his eye long ago, and his twin aunts are embodiments of evil.
Director Travis Knight tries to avoid clichés as his narrative unfolds and disarms us with humor when we least expect it. The funniest character is not the obvious comic-relief figure (an old woman in the village, voiced by Brenda Vaccaro) but a giant, amnesia-ridden samurai beetle who is endearingly dense. I didn’t read up on the movie beforehand and had no idea I was listening to Matthew McConaughey. He’s never tackled this kind of part before and does a terrific job. There are no weak links in the voice cast, for that matter, which is headed by Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson (as the voice of Kubo), Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, and George Takei (whose voice is unmistakable).
I was also impressed with the sweeping music score by Dario Marinelli, which is easily one of the year’s best.
As a classical saga Kubo and the Two Strings could have been shortened and simplified, but the finished product is still first-rate. I hope it is embraced by families and fanboys, both of whom will find much to appreciate here.