The latest from Laika -- the independent, Oregon-based animation studio responsible for stop-motion masterworks "Coraline," "ParaNorman," and "The Boxtrolls" -- is a visually stunning and wildly entertaining ode to the power of storytelling, wrapped in the atmosphere of Japanese folklore. Though still the relative new kid on the block, with "Kubo and the Two Strings," Laika has finished a run of films that can easily stand toe-to-toe with the works of Pixar.
Set in ancient, mythical Japan, the film follows a one-eyed boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson, known for Rickon Stark on HBO's "Game of Thrones"), who lives in a seaside cave looking after his ailing mother. Once a powerful witch, she was left weakened after defending her newborn son from his vindictive grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who plucked out one of the boy's eyes in a vengeful rage. Kubo never knew his father, but during her rare lucid states, his mother tells him stories in which he learns the man was a great samurai who laid down his life attempting to protect his family.
Each day, Kubo ventures out of their cave and travels into town, where he delights the people, and earns a little bit of money, by telling epic adventure stories in the village square. He acts out these tales using ornate origami figures he magically brings to life by playing music on his shamisen. Kubo's mother has warned him never to stay out past dark, lest her family find him and finish what they started by taking his other eye. But of course, Kubo eventually stays out too late one day, and he's immediately set upon by his evil aunts (chillingly voiced by Rooney Mara) who wish to deliver him back to his grandfather. Floating through the air, with faces hidden behind lifeless masks as they call out to Kubo, the twin sisters come straight out of your nightmares.
Once his mother's family is after him, the only thing that can protect Kubo is the armor once worn by his father. So the boy sets off on a quest to find the mystical armor and keep away from the nefarious side of his family. He's accompanied on his journey by Monkey (Charlize Theron), brought to life from a protective totem by the last of Kubo's mother's magic, and later Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a warrior whose memories were erased after being transformed into a half-man, half-bug creature.
The voice actors are all quite good in their roles, but for a film so steeped in Japanese mythology, it's hard to ignore the fact that the lead actors are all white. That all the performers of Asian descent are relegated to small roles as the villagers is more than a little disappointing.
"Kubo and the Two Strings" marks the directorial debut of Laika CEO Travis Knight, and it's filled with the level of intelligence, artistry, and craftsmanship we've come to expect from the studio. The film is loaded with endlessly imaginative visuals and wondrous sights; the sheer amount of work involved in bringing these stories to life boggles the mind. Laika animators' innovative use of 3D printing to increase the number of faces for each of their figures makes the animation impossibly fluid and the characters seem that much more expressive. As with Laika's previous films, seeing "Kubo" in 3D isn't required, but the format does add an additional layer of tangibility and tactileness to the world the animators have created.
Along with the technical achievements, the ambition and scope of the kinds of stories the studio chooses to tell continues to grow by leaps and bounds. That they also function as thoughtful parables that can help children process the complex world around them just makes their films that much more special. The script from Marc Haimes and Chris Butler never talks down to its younger audience, and weaves in poignant themes about love, loss, and the ways that storytelling can be a form of remembering. It doesn't shy away from the role that death plays in each of our stories, and its ultimate message that kindness is as important as bravery or strength is one that can't be heard too often.
Between "Pete's Dragon" and now "Kubo," we're ending a rather disappointing summer at the movies on an extremely high note. A wonderful family film (in the best sense of the word), "Kubo and the Two Strings" presents an imaginative, dazzlingly beautiful world that successfully brings a sense of wonder and magic back into a film season that's been sorely lacking in both.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including reviews of "Don't Think Twice" and "Southside With You."