The best parts of Kubo and the Two Strings are its textures. A soft-spoken fantasy film, this latest feature from stop-motion animation studio Laika has gorgeously tactile creations. That’s a feature of the form, where the characters look like stunningly molded action figures and dolls posed against striking dollhouse spaces. But the craftspeople and artisans at Laika (now as much a consistent high-quality brand as Pixar, Aardman, or Ghibli) are thorough imaginers, able to create a sense of magic in movement and sturdiness in worldbuilding. They also can mold their house style to a variety of tones and moods. Look at their works: dark Gaiman fable Coraline; family-friendly Carpenter-influenced horror ParaNorman; whimsical Dahl-meets-Dickens-meets-Monty-Python allegory The Boxtrolls. With Kubo, the company has a project that takes on the flavoring of ancient Japanese legend, from samurai tales to paper lanterns and a sense of fluid boundaries between the mortal and the spiritual, the fated and the created. It’s a very different sort of family fantasy: hushed, gentle, simple, spare.
Its widescreen story begins with Kubo, a one-eyed young boy (Art Parkinson) alone with his mother in a cave at the edge of a small village. He earns money for food by performing stories for the villagers, with heroes, villains, and monsters he animates by making origami puppets come to life with his magic stringed instrument. He strums and narrates while the art acts out his tales. Soon, though, he’ll be in a real hero’s journey of his own. His mother always says never be out at night. They have a tragic backstory. Kubo’s grandfather and aunts on his mother’s side are cruel moon spirits who stole his eye when he was a baby, killing his noble samurai father in the process. His mother has since hidden them to protect the other eye, which they still crave. If moonlight spots the boy, they will return to collect. Alas, this is what happens one night. Kubo is attacked, and his mother uses her last bit of magic to spirit him away and conjure a protector. What follows is a journey for the items that will save his life, told in a mood as delicate and involving as the origami tales he tells.
This is fascinating and intriguing fantasy setup, patiently and slowly unfolding its world. It’s less about its simple story, but more about how rich its visual opportunities are and how consuming its tone is. The boy awakes to find his monkey figurine is now a real monkey (with the voice of Charlize Theron), maternal, stern, and skilled in martial arts. She’s his mother’s final gift. Together they must go on a fairly standard quest set up in threes. There are three travelers: the boy, the monkey, and a man-sized beetle (Matthew McConaughey) they meet along the way. Their goal is finding three mythical objects to help them defeat the enemy: an unbreakable sword, impenetrable armor, and a golden helmet. Getting those involves three deadly obstacles: a giant skeleton, underwater eyeballs around a reef-sized toothy maw, and a dragon. And there are three villains to be confronted: Kubo’s twin porcelain witch aunts (hauntingly voiced by Rooney Mara), and his grandfather, the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, with story credit to Shannon Tindle, use these threes to structure a movie of repetitive rhythms, like an easy-to-recall bedtime story with exciting incident and imaginative sights told in a comforting pattern.
In typical Laika fashion, director Travis Knight allows the movie to move at its own pace, and take on its own distinctive character. It’s a story of melancholy and loss, with real life-and-death stakes and a reverence for the fragile line between the living and the dead. An early sequence finds villagers earnestly communing with the spirits of relatives who’ve passed on. This makes Kubo jealous, but as his journey brings him closer to memories of his parents, he draws on their example as well as the inner strength (and magic) they’ve left in him to do right. This is quite a somber topic for a family film, and it’s allowed its due seriousness. It informs the movie’s whimsy without trivializing the ambiguities and mysteries it works through. This is still, after all, a movie in which a talking monkey has a dazzling swordfight with a ghostly moon spirit who comes gliding in on spooky CG fog, a sailing ship is made out of twigs and leaves, and a beetle-man scurries to the top of a giant skull to pull out a sword imbedded in it. There are magnificent and creative sights used for quiet, minor key effects. It’s fun, but slower and sadder than you might expect. It's like a spell. No wonder the movie begins the same way Kubo starts his origami tales, as the paper folds itself into delicate astonishments: "If you must blink, do it now."