“KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS” — 3½ stars — Voices of Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei; PG (thematic elements, scary images, action and peril); in general release
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is a very cool piece of animation. If you are a fan of animation, particularly the stop-motion variety, put this one at the top of your list.
“Kubo” marks the fourth feature film from Laika Entertainment, which most recently delivered “The Boxtrolls” in 2014, but it’s a dramatic departure from that film’s quirky, cheese-obsessed Brits. Director Travis Knight’s film feels more like a cross between Japanese Anime, modern United States wit, and Laika’s trademark stop-motion look.
The story is a hero’s journey. Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a one-eyed young boy who lives in hiding with his mother outside a small Japanese village. By day, he performs for local villagers, playing his shamisen while magic origami characters act out stories about a samurai warrior and his battles against the evil Moon King. But before sundown, Kubo must return to the family cave, where he will be safe from his grandfather and his mother’s sisters, who want to snatch his remaining eye.
One night, Kubo stays out too late, and his wicked aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara) find him. They lay waste to the village, and only a heroic effort from his mother allows Kubo to escape. His cover blown, Kubo is given a quest: find his father’s magic sword, breastplate and helmet in order to battle his grandfather and end the conflict.
Kubo is not alone on his journey. His mother enlists the support of a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) to show him the way, and soon after they discover Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a former colleague of Kubo’s father who has been turned into a giant bug.
Their quest encounters a variety of twists, conflicts and close calls as they seek out the different items, all on the way to Kubo’s inevitable showdown with his grandfather (Ralph Fiennes). The plot is straightforward, but the animation and style make “Kubo” plenty engaging through its 101-minute run time.
Through that run time, the interplay between a decidedly Eastern look and feel and the sarcastic wit of “Kubo’s” American voiceover actors creates a compelling product that should be both accessible to American audiences and exotic enough to stand apart from other animated options.
“Kubo’s” complexity and mature story makes it feel best suited for older children, though not because of inappropriate content. There are passages — specifically those including Kubo’s evil aunts—that are on the creepy side, but parents shouldn’t be concerned. It’s more that older kids will more fully appreciate the well-rounded product.
“Kubo” is visually creative and built on the same kind of classic mythological foundation that George Lucas mined for “Star Wars,” and it’s another testament to the quality of Laika Entertainment. There is also a very powerful and touching theme of family that runs through the whole film, even if the exact rationale of the conflict between Kubo and his grandfather feels a little muddled by the time we get to the third act.
This is Knight’s first turn as director, though the Laika CEO also worked as lead animator on previous company films like “Boxtrolls,” “ParaNorman” and “Coraline.” Based on the final product, we should be excited to see more from him in the future.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril; running time: 101 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.