4 out of 5 stars.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is Laika’s most complex and ambitious work to date — and that’s saying a lot for the stop-motion animation studio, whose previous credits include “Coraline” and “ParaNorman.” “Kubo,” which is directed as well as co-produced Travis Knight, draws on the rich Japanese tradition of storytelling to craft an original tale that is more than just a family film — it speaks to viewers of all ages.
Set in ancient Japan, the title character, a young one-eyed boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson), lives on a secluded mountain with his sick mother, Sariatu. Every day he ventures into the village and regales the locals with stories told by magically moving origami figures with the music he plays from his shamisen. Kubo cannot stay out past sundown, however; according to his mother, if he does so her sisters (Rooney Mara) and his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), will find him and take his other eye.
But when Kubo learns of a ceremony allowing family members to speak to deceased loved ones, he cannot resist the opportunity to try to communicate with his father, Hanzo. But he says out past sundown as a result, and the Sisters attack him as a result. Sariatu intervenes, fending off the Sisters and sending Kubo away with her magic, giving him one task: find his father’s old armor to defeat the Moon King. He is accompanied by Monkey (Charlize Theron), a living reincarnation of a charm his mother gave him, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a cursed samurai who used to be Hanzo’s apprentice.
Everything about “Kubo” is magical, especially the animation. Laika pushes the boundaries of stop-motion with this film, from the intricately designed character puppets to the complex action scenes. But even in its quieter moments, the film is still visually outstanding — perhaps even more so, because in those scenes we can really appreciate the amount of feeling and expression put into these characters. It’s accented by a gorgeous score by Dario Marianelli that’s influenced by the guitar-like instrument Kubo gets his magic from.
But there’s magic in the story as well — literally, of course, but also in the message it conveys. “Kubo” is not about mourning the past; rather, it is about honoring it, and using it as a way of shaping the future. The climax of the film, as well as its scenes Obon ceremonies, are nothing short of beautiful. Despite some stranger parts, it tells that story in a way that is still fun and engaging for younger audiences, but it doesn’t dumb it down; it doesn’t try to hide any secret details or little jokes that only the adults will enjoy. It is a movie for everyone, with a message for everyone, and it appreciates the fact that many children have known loss and grieving as well.
“Kubo” feels like a myth that has been passed down for generations, but in reality it is an original story created by the filmmakers at Laika for this movie. But perhaps now it will become a myth of some sort; in any case, it deserves that.
Runtime: 101 minutes. Rated PG.