“If you must blink, do it now,” proclaims our eponymous hero at the start of ‘Kubo and the Two Strings.’ His exhortation is right on the money, because this is the latest work of art from Laika, the stop-motion animation studio behind the indelible ‘Coraline’ and the visually stunning ‘ParaNorman’ and ‘The Boxtrolls.’
‘Kubo’ is Laika’s new masterpiece. Each frame is filled with such beauty and technical brilliance that the movie stops you dead in your tracks and leaves your jaw on the floor. Not only do the hand-crafted landscapes and groundbreaking effects stun you from the start, but the incredible detail in the character animation keeps the story grounded in an emotional strength that runs concurrent to the visuals.
Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson) and his mother live in a cave high on a mountain above a small village in ancient Japan. He visits the village often to tell stories using a magical shamisen and enchanted origami. The stories are adapted from tales told to him by his mother about their magical extended family. The endings of the stories are always a bit fuzzy: mom is a bit distant; withdrawn because of a traumatic event in her past. Kubo is dying to know how her story ended, but as he is swept into a fantastical quest he never could have seen coming, he realizes that he is the inciting incident to end the entire tale.
Family is clearly the larger theme explored in Kubo’s adventure. But the first act feels as obtuse as it is charming because, like most great stories, nothing is spelled out for you at the beginning. We’re putting things together about the back story of the magic just as our hero is, and that proves to be a very effective storytelling device.
Because we can’t worry about the plot during the first act for lack of information, we’re almost immediately endeared to the personalities of the three main characters because they’re all we have to hold on to. Usually this would be a negative thing, but in this case it works very naturally in order for all of the thematic material to converge in the finale. We care about the characters so much by that point that there is no point complaining that the plot is a bit convoluted and slightly more conventional than one would think given the first act. The film also makes up for this by having a truly surprising denouement to its last action sequence.
Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey voice a monkey and a man-beetle, respectively. They are mythic protectors for Kubo once a calamity spurs him on his quest. Theron’s is definitely a type-A character, dutiful and almost militaristic. McConaughey’s is a type-B whose jokes and asides are initially a thorn in the monkey’s side, but the the two begin to grow on each other, and with Kubo’s innocence and admirable bravery, the three of them are a wildly entertaining trio to watch.
Also wildly entertaining are the action sequences, which rival ‘The Incredibles’ and ‘Samurai Jack’ in terms of eye-popping and heart-pounding animated action. You forget you’re watching animation during these times because it seems as though a kung fu master advised and co-directed these fights. They are just staggeringly impressive.
Director Travis Knight has been a lead animator in CG and stop-motion departments at Laika for a number of years. With ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ his leadership and artistic vision come to the fore in a big, big way. In a year with vastly different marquee animated films in terms of tone (‘Zootopia,’ ‘Sausage Party,’ ‘Finding Dory’), ‘Kubo’ falls nicely into the category of unexpected artwork. It will sneak up and floor you – just don’t blink.
‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril