With their fourth feature film (following Coraline, Paranorman and The Boxtrolls), the stop-motion wizards at LAIKA have crafted animation so fluid and graceful that many average viewers may assume the images are computer-generated. But whether or not one appreciates the painstaking hands-on craftsmanship that created Kubo and the Two Strings, there is much to appeal to the eye and the heart.
In its young, eponymous hero (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Art Parkinson), who folds detailed paper figures and brings them to life with the playing of his stringed shamisen instrument, director Travis Knight and his team have come up with a mirror image of themselves as they introduce their meticulously fabricated figures and touch them with magic. Their people, animals, ghosts and other creatures are granted extra life through evocative 3D photography—though that’s a quality Kubo himself couldn’t appreciate, as he only has one eye, the absent one covered with a patch. He lost the orb to his grandfather, the Moon King, who is the bad guy of the origami-enhanced stories he spins to the residents of a small village in feudal Japan.
The hero of the tales is the great samurai Hanzo, who once battled villains with the aid of The Armor Impenetrable, The Sword Unbreakable and The Helmet Invulnerable. Retrieving those items will become the boy’s own quest after he accidentally resurrects the ancient evil forces, joined on the journey by the harsh but protective mentor Monkey (Charlize Theron) and the less seriously inclined humanoid-insect warrior Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Their trek through landscapes ranging from lush to wintry to suboceanic confronts them with an assortment of memorably menacing creatures, including malevolent twin Sisters (Rooney Mara) who hide their faces behind Noh masks and an undersea garden of giant eyeballs on stalks.
Knight, the president and CEO of LAIKA making his debut at the helm, has marshaled his team of artists to fashion a fully realized world and populate it with remarkably expressive characters. From Kubo’s determination and vulnerability to the gently clashing personalities of Monkey and Beetle to the assorted eccentrics of the boy’s hometown, everyone in the movie (scripted by Marc Haimes and Paranorman’s Chris Butler, from a story by Shannon Tindle and Haimes) feels distinctive and real, and the inhuman beings have similarly singular presences as well. Great credit also goes to the first-rate voice cast, with Parkinson, Theron, McConaughey (submerging his signature drawl) and Mara joined by Ralph Fiennes (getting his Voldemort on as he speaks for the Moon King) and veteran actors George Takei (yes, he gets in an “Oh my!”), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Brenda Vaccaro.
Kubo and the Two Strings plunges its heroes and villains into a series of setpieces so epic that imagining how they were created with physical puppets and sets boggles the mind. (We get a little behind-the-scenes taste of how it was pulled off during the end credits.) Staging a stop-motion battle that takes place on the ocean, with a storm raging as a boat made of thousands of individual leaves slowly comes apart, must have been as daunting a challenge for the technicians as it is for the characters involved, but the animators have succeeded splendidly. And at its core, there’s an affecting story here as well, one that celebrates courage, perseverance and, above all, the power of storytelling. Kubo instructs both us and his own audience to play close attention at the movie’s outset, and that attention is rewarded for every one of Kubo’s 101 entrancing minutes.