Animation powerhouse Laika, which previously brought us Coraline and ParaNorman, is out to blow our minds all over again with Kubo and the Two Strings, a fable heavily influenced by Japanese mythology and one of the finest films of the year. A young boy with one eye named Kubo (Art Parkinson) spends much of his time caring for his ailing mother and the rest making money by busking with a magical samisen that can bring origami to life, a power he uses to tell stories to the townspeople. His stories are based on his mother’s nightly tales of the swashbuckling happenings that led to the death of Kubo’s father, who died to protect his family some years ago. Mom constantly reminds our young hero that he must never stay out after dark or his grandfather, the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), will come for him and take his other eye. Yikes.
This system works for many years until Kubo accidentally stays out too late during the festival of Obon, a yearly occurrence wherein the souls of departed loved ones supposedly return to speak with the living. Turns out his mother’s warnings were true, and as soon as the moon hangs in the sky, Kubo is relentlessly pursued by the Moon King’s twin daughters, an evil pair voiced brilliantly by Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), who do indeed want his other eye. The twins are utterly terrifying but, with the help of his mother’s magic, Kubo is able to escape. Alone and scared, our hero is joined by a no-nonsense monkey (Charlize Theron), who is a martial arts expert, and a warrior (Matthew McConaughey) cursed to wander the earth without his memories and in anthropomorphized beetle form. In order to take on their enemies, the trio must find three magical pieces of equipment, and thus their journey begins. Awesome.
The combination of stop-motion and computer animation is absolutely stunning, from the large-scale action sequences to seemingly unimportant details such as the way hair moves in the wind. From a technical standpoint, Kubo and the Two Strings doesn’t just raise the bar—it demolishes it entirely. Of course, this wouldn’t be nearly as impressive if the story wasn’t engaging, and nothing in this film that feels extraneous or out of place. Humorous moments are sincerely funny and timed perfectly so as to alleviate the pressure of mature themes, but Laika pulls no punches. It’s valuable for kids to absorb stories wherein young heroes are proven capable on their own, but are also never too proud or silly to ask for and accept help. This of course feeds into the overall narrative on the power of love, which, despite the concept losing some of its oomph over the years, once again manages to conquer all.
Parents will find plenty to enjoy as well, but beyond the obvious ass-kicking qualities of Kubo lies a sweet and charming tale with an important moral takeaway. In a medium that never seems to tire of fluff or talking down to kids, this is a brilliant alternative. Smart, funny and thrilling throughout, it very well may go down in film history as one of the greatest animation features of all time. Do not miss it.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Directed by Travis Knight
With Parkinson, Theron and McConaughey
Violet Crown, Regal