In “Kubo and the Two Strings,” a brave, one-eyed Japanese boy is faced with divergent paths to immortality: Either he can surrender his remaining eye to his supernatural grandfather, the greedy Moon King, in exchange for eternal life, or he can stand up to the magical old-timer in a manner so courageous that his story will become the stuff of legend, never to be forgotten.
Kubo, who hides his eye patch behind long black bangs, chooses the latter option, of course, which makes perfect sense for the hero of the latest stop-motion marvel from Laika, the formula-averse animation studio responsible for such breathtakingly detailed movies as “Coraline” and “ParaNorman.” Expanding upon the charms of those director-driven projects, “Kubo” offers another ominous mission for a lucky young misfit, this one a dark, yet thrilling adventure quest that stands as the crowning achievement in Laika’s already impressive oeuvre — though its Asian setting, handicapped hero, and relaxed pace will make it an even tougher sell than the studio’s previous modest-grossing toons.
As it happens, audiences get two epics for the price of one in “Kubo.” The first, shot in exquisite stereoscopic 3D, is a meticulously constructed hero’s journey that blends the lessons of Western mythology, à la Joseph Campbell, with the Eastern tradition of great samurai tales. It’s as if screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler studied “Star Wars” and decided to trace certain aspects of that pop space opera back to their Akira Kurosawa-inspired roots. The second takes place entirely behind the scenes, a decade-plus effort by which stop-motion enthusiast Travis Knight helped resuscitate the labor-intensive art form, taking over what remained of Will Vinton Studios (the outfit responsible for the California Raisins), and working his way up to this film as a feature directing debut. It’s the power of what we see on screen that makes both of these sagas great — and it stands to reason that Kubo, like Knight, ultimately finds himself fighting for the right to tell great stories.
Armed with a long, square-bodied lute-like instrument called a shamisen and a stack of origami paper, Kubo (Art Parkinson, whose voice sounds ready for adventure) spends his days spinning elaborate tales in a remote village. The son of the legendary samurai Hanzo (modeled after Kurosawa muse Toshiro Mifune), the boy rocks the shamisen as if it were a surf guitar, which in turn causes the colored origami sheets to swirl around, magically folding themselves in sync with his stories — the animated pages helping to illustrate embellished versions of the tales his over-protective if absent-minded mother tells him before bedtime back in the cave they call home.
No stranger to magic and quite powerful in her own right, Kubo’s mom has raised him alone since he was an infant, hiding him from his grandfather, the Moon King. While the boy’s vaguely Harry Potter-like backstory isn’t immediately clear (for manga fans, this could be “Lone Wolf and Cub” told from the lone kid’s p.o.v.), the mystery is effectively the point in a film whose pleasure is in discovering Kubo’s gifts — as well as a great raft of family secrets and surprises — as he sets out to gather the three artifacts his long-gone father sought to try to defeat the Moon King: the Sword Unbreakable, the Armor Impenetrable and the Helmet Invulnerable.
Kubo is aided in his quest by two of Laika’s most memorable characters to date: the surly, ultra-serious Monkey (Charlize Theron, whose deadpan delivery garners laughs) and a goofy insect-human hybrid known as Beetle (Matthew McConaughey, whose throwaway quips don’t). In addition to boasting memorable voices and well-written personalities, both are wonders of design, the former a snow monkey whose fur convincingly appears to ripple as she contorts her bulbous, pitaya-pink face, the latter a giant, six-limbed stag beetle whose oversized mandibles suggest the horned helmets worn by ancient samurai warriors. When this colorful duo aren’t quarreling, they dutifully serve as surrogate parents for our now-orphaned hero, since his birth mother spent her last bit of magic defending Kubo from her two sisters (Rooney Mara). Those persistently sinister aunties resurface soon enough as a pair of levitating spirits wearing creepy smiling Japanese Noh masks and wielding a chained blade reminiscent of China’s infamous flying guillotine.
Although it’s rare to see an American movie that borrows so heavily from Asian storytelling traditions, “Kubo and the Two Strings” incorporates its many exotic influences in a way that feels deceptively familiar, even logical, driven by Dario Marianelli’s score, richly elaborated from Kubo’s plucky shamisen theme. “If you must blink, do it now,” Kubo advises his rapt audience at the outset, though the film relies on clever trickery throughout, using much-desired revelations — especially pertaining to Kubo’s parents — to distract the viewer from the troubling consequences of certain twists the dream-like narrative presents along the way. It’s not every children’s movie that has the courage to kill off so many of its principal characters. Indeed, no one would accuse Knight and his Laika cohorts of talking down to viewers.
Laika’s distinctive animation style involves a complex mix of cutting-edge technology and painstaking human labor so fine that it’s easily and often mistaken for pure computer-generated images (whereas 3D printers produce the facial expressions, the component parts of which animators manually replace as they reposition the puppets frame-by-frame). While each of the studio’s films boasts a creative look entirely its own, certain common elements have clearly emerged by this fourth feature — from the eccentric look of certain characters (with their asymmetrical faces) to the scary, supernatural dimension favored in each of the movies.
Endings have always been the weak point in Laika’s previous narratives, which inevitably build to unwieldy confrontations between a young outsider and some giant phosphorescent menace. Knight and his screenwriting team not only acknowledge this problem (in town, Kubo’s audience complains that “people like an ending”), they even come up with a powerful emotional solution — albeit one that follows an absurd and unnecessary showdown between Kubo and a giant glow-worm known as the Moon Beast (Ralph Fiennes, sounding his most Voldemortian).
It’s the fifth big fight scene in a movie that remarkably finds a way to make these limited-range puppets jump and kick as dynamically as their CG cartoon competition. While “Kung Fu Panda” has spoiled us in that regard, one shouldn’t take for granted the skill required to create exciting action sequences in a stop-motion film. Yet, the finale really is the least of things here, in a project that’s otherwise so consistently spectacular, and ultimately saved by the sincerity of its denouement.
With such awe-inspiring artistry, designed so as to never distract from the material it serves, “Kubo and the Two Strings” stands as the sort of film that feels richer with each successive viewing, from the paper-folded Laika logo at the beginning (an early taste of the stunning origami sequences to follow) to the emotional resonance of its final shot. In his first project at the helm, Knight has delivered a tale that touches on immortality.