‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ is top-notch animation
Take a little Harry Potter, a little Joseph Campbell, a little Japanese ghost story, and a lot of 3-D stop-motion astonishment, and you have the recipe for “Kubo and the Two Strings,” the most ambitious if not quite the best offering yet from Laika, the handmade animation company whose pinnacle remains “Coraline” (2009).
After an epic opening at sea, in which the baby Kubo and his mother (voiced by Charlize Theron) survive a giant wave worthy of Hokusai, the film skips ahead to when the boy (Art Parkinson) is earning rice money in the village square, telling stories that are enacted by origami figures he magically brings to life with his virtuoso samisen licks. Like much of “Kubo,” what sounds nonsensical on paper is transformed into magic onscreen.
The hero has a mythical backstory: His grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), is angry that his daughter has married a samurai mortal and, having already taken one of the boy’s eyes, wants to bring him back into the fold. To that end, he sends Kubo’s terrifying aunts — they’re like a cross between Tolkien’s Ringwraiths and No-Face from “Spirited Away” — on a search-and-repatriation mission. The movie is genuinely creative, genuinely outside-the-box, and often genuinely scary; parents of toddlers and nightmare-prone children are herewith warned. (Everyone else: Go without reservations.)
Directed by Travis Knight — Laika’s CEO, moving up from lead animator duties on the earlier films — “Kubo and the Two Strings” dresses familiar quest-narrative beats in freshly animated clothing. The boy, eye-patched and resourceful, is accompanied in his search for the Sword Unbreakable and other protective talismans by a drily sardonic snow monkey (Theron again) and a samurai warrior transformed by a spell into a giant beetle (Matthew McConaughey). The dialogue is tart, the delivery by the star actors witty and engaged.
And there are the rapturous visuals. Laika likes to show us things we’ve never seen before, and the company’s generally hands-on aesthetic (“Kubo” is a combination of stop-motion puppetry, CGI animation, and other techniques) can put you in a fugue state of awe, as when a flock of purple origami birds takes wing or the characters board a sailing ship made of brightly colored autumn leaves, or a giant, angry skeleton — the largest stop-motion puppet ever built, per the production notes — hoves into view. Sometimes the most lovely moments are the simplest, such as a view of lighted candles drifting down a summer river.
If the animation is four-star, the story brings things down a notch: It’s intuitive and often inspired but a muddle when it shouldn’t be, especially in final scenes that lose the sure-footed tone of what has come before. Maybe there are just too many ingredients here. “Kubo and the Two Strings” carries echoes of L. Frank Baum as well -- and Roald Dahl, and “The Phantom Tollbooth,” and even some of bluegrass legends Flatt and Scruggs in the hero’s Foggy Mountain samisen breakdowns.
Of course your kids may eventually get to those classics and think they’re familiar from this. And you have to admire the nerve of a 3-D movie with a one-eyed boy for a hero.
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS
Directed by Travis Knight. Written by Marc Haimes, Chris Butler, and Shannon Tindle. Featuring the voices of Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey. At Boston Common, suburbs. 101 minutes. PG (thematic elements, scary images, action, and peril)