“If you must blink, do it now,” instructs the young hero at the outset of Kubo and the Two Strings.
It’s advice to be heeded.
Representing a dazzling artistic leap forward for LAIKA, the stop-motion animation studio’s fourth feature — and first full-blown fantasy — is an eye-popping delight that deftly blends colorful folklore with gorgeous, origami-informed visuals to immersive effect.
After carving a quirky niche in a crowded field with Coraline, ParaNorman and 2014’s The Boxtrolls, the Oregon-based company has impressively raised its own bar here, not only technologically, but also in terms of creating warmly engaging characters. But, while on the subject of crowded fields, given that animated fare hasn’t exactly been in short supply this summer, it remains to be seen how the Focus Features release’s late-summer placement will play out as families start heading into back-to-school mode.
Set in ancient Japan, the film immediately establishes the feeling that all is not idyllic in the life of Kubo (affectingly voiced by Game of Thrones’ Art Parkinson), a boy with a vivid imagination and a gift for paper-folding who lives on a high cliff perched above a restless sea. He also has an eye patch hidden beneath his bangs, and while alluding to the fact that what used to be there was taken by his grandfather, he proves to be correct in calling the loss the least of his issues when he unwittingly unleashes a nasty spirit intent on finishing what it started a long time ago.
Joining forces with an enchanted but seriously no-nonsense monkey (a terrific Charlize Theron) and a joke-cracking giant samurai beetle (an equally terrific Matthew McConaughey), Kubo embarks on a quest to discover what became of his parents while learning a lesson about the importance of keeping memories alive.
In his assured directorial debut, LAIKA president and CEO Travis Knight pays affectionate homage to filmmaking greats from Akira Kurosawa to Hayao Miyazaki while offering a stop-motion tip of the hat to effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen in battle sequences featuring a giant skeleton and the serpent-like Moon Beast.
While it isn’t afraid of venturing into dark places and taking some surprising turns, the screenplay, by former DreamWorks exec Marc Haimes and ParaNorman director Chris Butler, never does so at the expense of a prevailing sense of wonder and tender emotional touchstones. Neither does the writing shy away from the element of sly humor that has also played a prominent role in LAIKA’s prior output. Here it’s delivered with an amusingly wry cynicism by Theron and a delusional, goofy grandeur by McConaughey, whose usual twang has been effectively disguised in his animated debut.
Rounding out the inspired voice cast is Ralph Fiennes as a vengeful Moon King, Rooney Mara as a pair of evil twin sisters and George Takei and Brenda Vaccaro as engaging village elders.
Notable contributions also extend to Nelson Lowry’s richly appointed production design, which intricately incorporates thematic elements of origami and traditional Japanese woodblock printing in virtually every frame. Credit also must go to composer Dario Marianelli’s understated, Asian-accented score, which, unlike Kubo’s trusty two-stringed shamisen, opts for the traditional three-stringed model.
Distributor: Focus Features
Production company: LAIKA
Cast: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey
Director: Travis Knight
Screenwriters: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler
Producers: Arianne Sutner, Travis Knight
Director of photography: Frank Passingham
Production designer: Nelson Lowry
Costume designer: Deborah Cook
Editor: Christopher Murrie
Music: Dario Marianelli
Rated PG, 101 minutes