“If you must blink, do it now,” warns the narrator of “Kubo and the Two Strings,” a movie so confident in its eye-popping visuals and brilliant storytelling that it knows you won’t want to miss a single moment. It’s advice you’ll definitely want to follow, because after the disappointment of 2014’s “The Boxtrolls,” Portland-based animation studio Laika is back at the top of its game with this wildly inventive adventure film that’s packed with the kind of sincerity and heartfelt emotion you rarely find in the medium, Pixar excluded. But “Kubo and the Two Strings” is more than just a return to form for the studio; it’s their funniest and finest movie to date – an absolutely delightful fairy tale that will likely go down as one of the year’s best.
In feudal Japan, a young, one-eyed boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) has been tasked with taking care of his sick mother in their remote mountain home. During the day, Kubo goes down to the nearby village to tell stories about the legendary samurai Hanzo with his magical samisen, a traditional, three-stringed Japanese instrument that can manipulate colorful sheets of paper into animated origami figures that move and dance with the strum of a string. When he doesn’t heed his mother’s warning and stays out after dark one night, however, Kubo inadvertently summons his evil twin aunts (Rooney Mara), who have been sent by his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), to steal his other eye. Kubo’s mother comes to his rescue just in time, sacrificing herself to save him and using her last bit of magic to bring to life a wooden monkey charm that serves as his guardian. With the help of Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a cursed man-beetle warrior (Matthew McConaughey) with no memory of his previous life, Kubo must embark on a quest to retrieve the three pieces of Hanzo’s fabled gold armor in order to defeat his vengeful family.
Though Laika has never failed to impress with its use of stop-motion animation, the studio has outdone itself with “Kubo and the Two Strings,” which is one of the most gorgeously animated movies in recent history. Every single frame is extremely detailed, bursting with personality and so tactile that it feels like you could reach out and touch it. The origami sequences and the Monkey character (whose fluffy white fur is a sight to behold) are particularly remarkable, and there’s also a couple of really great action scenes that are made even more amazing by the sheer artistry on display. Like the studio’s past projects, the movie uses sparse CGI to supplement the stop-motion process, but it doesn’t take away from what first-time director (and Laika CEO) Travis Knight and his team have accomplished with practical effects.
The voice acting is top-notch as well; McConaughey was an inspired choice to play the loveable goof Beetle, while Theron steals the show as the soulful Monkey. Their comedic banter is among the film’s many highlights, but just because “Kubo and the Two Strings” is more lighthearted doesn’t mean that it’s completely devoid of Laika’s typical gothic leanings. In fact, the Sisters are downright creepy in their bone-white kabuki masks, and the various supernatural monsters that Kubo encounters along his journey aren’t exactly kid-friendly either. Nevertheless, Knight does such a good job of balancing these darker elements with humor that they’re not as scary as they could be. And that’s important, because while “Kubo and the Two Strings” is a fairly serious film about love, loss and family, it goes about telling its simple but layered story with such child-like optimism that it resonates even stronger as a result.