REVIEW WRITTEN BY MARK MESZOROS
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In the production notes for “Kubo and the Two Strings,” an absolutely gorgeous work of stop-motion animation from Oregon-based Laika, the company’s CEO, Travis Knight, writes of the power and value of telling great stories.
“We believe storytelling is an important part of who we all are,” Knight says. “We believe the best stories are a delicate and artful blend of darkness and light, of intensity and warmth, of much-considered thought and keenly felt emotion.”
That lovely sentiment makes it all the more disappointing that the only area in which “Kubo and the Two Strings” stumbles is its storytelling.
Is said storytelling so weak that the film falls apart? Fortunately, no — not even close. But that it is messy — increasingly so as the adventure wears on — is the only thing from keeping “Kubo” out of the animation-masterpiece classification.
The visuals? Striking and beautiful.
The characters? Likable and memorable.
The voicework from stars including Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey? Very good.
To dwell on its one flaw is, admittedly, to do a disservice to
“Kubo and the Two Strings,” a work with so many positive qualities it’s still easy to recommend.
Set in a “fantastical ancient Japan,” Kubo tells the story of its namesake boy (voiced by Art Parkinson), who wears a robe that once belonged to his late father and whose long dark hair hides the patch he wears over his left eye. Kubo is a clever and amiable lad who during the day ventures into town to wow people with musical storytelling, with the help of origami works that come to life as he performs.
At night, however, he can be found in a remote spot he shares with his regal and once powerful mother. She is in failing health and becoming increasingly forgetful, and he cares for her lovingly and dutifully. However, she is also the source of the story he tells to the townsfolk, the story of his heroic father and his evil grandfather and aunts, who would harm him if they could.
When Kubo accidentally summons him, his life is in extreme danger and he must embark on a treacherous journey to find three items of his father’s that could help him defeat his grandfather: The Armor Impenetrable, The Sword Unbreakable and The Helmet Invulnerable.
On this journey, he has a few allies, most notably the overprotective Monkey (Charlize Theron) — the result of his mother’s last bit of magic — and an insect-shaped former samurai, Beetle (McConaughey). While Beetle provides some much-needed comic relief, Monkey mostly nags Kubo to be as careful as possible.
“Monkey, do you ever say anything encouraging?” Kubo asks her.
“I encourage you not to die,” she answers flatly.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” does get a little scary from time to time, as Kubo’s witch aunts (Rooney Mara) attack the crew. Also, he will, of course, come face to face with his grandfather (Ralph Fiennes). But Kubo is brave and has a lot of heart, so he won’t easily be defeated.
Laika is the company behind three other mainstream features, “Coraline” (2009), “ParaNorman” (2012) and “The Boxtroll” (2014), all of which make use of the time-consuming art of stop-motion animation. Laika’s films are visually inventive — though none looks as sumptuous as “Kubo” — and tend to have an appealing amount of quirkiness.
Kubo is lifted by the steady work of Theron (“The Huntsman: Winter’s War”) and the comic delivery of McConaughey (“The Free State of Jones”), who wouldn’t have seemed a logical choice for the role. And let’s not forget about Parkinson, who gets more to do as Kubo than he has as Rickon Stark in the live-action HBO series “Game of Thrones.” Parkinson is one of the main reasons Kubo is so likeable.
But three credited writers and Knight, who directs, can’t quite figure out how to bring Kubo’s journey to a highly satisfying conclusion. For example, even when we finally are given an explanation for why Kubo’s grandfather — the Moon King — wants Kubo’s other eye, it doesn’t really hit home. And then there’s the movie’s final seconds, which are frustratingly vague but seem to betray a lesson learned only moments earlier.
On the other hand, the movie’s title eventually will make sense — and prove touching.
While Laika may not be quite there yet, it’s exciting to think about what lies ahead for the company.