I think I was about halfway through the screening of “Kubo and the Two Strings” before I even realized it was stop-motion animation. The movement is so smooth, the backgrounds so dense and the action so unbound, I figured there was no way this could be the work of puppets slowly moved a frame at a time.
But Laika, the stop-motion studio behind “The Boxtrolls,” “ParaNorman” and “Coraline,” has made another gem with this lyrical story set in medieval Japan.
It’s about a boy, Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson), who has grown up as a virtual orphan near a tiny beach village. He lives in a cave with his mother, who exists in a seemingly never-ending daze, needing help even to eat. But in her more lucid moments she spins tales about the dark history of their family, including the death of his father, Honsou, a mighty warrior, and how as a baby Kubo had one of his eyes stolen by his own grandfather.
(Though the material is carefully presented not to be too frightening, the themes and action scenes may be too intense for smaller children. I would take my 5-year-old to see this, but probably not the 3-year-old.)
Kubo has inherited the magical gift of his mother, which he employs to tell variations on his mother’s stories in the village for money. Using a traditional three-string Japanese banjo, plinked with a triangular pick, and colored paper that comes alive at his beckon to turn into shape-shifting origami to illustrate his tales, it’s an astonishing blend of dazzling visuals and jaunty music. (Dario Marianelli provides the latter.)
Tragedy befalls when Kubo ignores his mother’s warning to never remain outside after sunset, when his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), can see him. The boy finds himself exiled to the barren Farlands. His only companion is Monkey (Charlize Theron), a wooden charm he always carried that came alive via his mother’s spells. Monkey is very protective of the boy, and sternly urges him on his quest to retrieve the three pieces of magical armor necessary to defeat the enemy.
Along the way they encounter the Sisters, very creepy masked twins who are a disturbing amalgam of Japanese and European conceptions of witches, both voiced by Rooney Mara. They also run into this odd creature who looks like a man trapped inside a bug’s chitinous shell; he has no memory, other than insisting he was once a samurai who was cursed. Dubbing the forgetful fellow Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), he joins their little band.
The animation is just wondrous to behold. Several ocean scenes have a mesmerizing quality, especially once you realize there’s no water used. One encounter with a giant skeleton is particularly memorable, both for its fearfulness and intricacy.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is not your typical animated flick. Though it’s suitable for (nearly) the whole family, it’s got an edge and a timelessness that goes far beyond the familiar cute-critters-and-life-lessons formula. It feels like an ageless Eastern parable, dreamed up by 21st century American artists.