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 Puppet-300

This is an actual puppet used in the production of ‘Kubo and the Two Strings.’ Thousands of “replacement heads” and parts enable animators to create a limitless range of facial expressions

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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024