A beautifully handcrafted animated adventure.

“If you must blink, do it now.” Laika, the stop-motion animation studio, are on one hell of a streak right now. With their trio of animated knockouts in Coraline, ParaNorman, and Coraline already under their belt, Laika might have produced their best film yet in Kubo and the Two Strings.

Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a young boy who lives a simple life in ancient Japan. By day, he treats a nearby coastal village to stories about the legendary hero Hanzo, supplementing his story telling with a shamisen and magical origami figures. By night, he is taking care of his ill mother in their remote hut. Kubo’s mother was forced to make an escape from Kubo’s grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), after he mercilessly cut out one Kubo’s eyes while he was a baby. During her escape, Kubo’s mother received a grave head wound, which severely affected her brain function. Eventually, the Moon King and his other daughters catch back up with Kubo and his mother. Kubo is then forced to go on the run with nothing but his magical shamisen, and the help of a mysterious monkey (Charlize Theron) and a quirky humanoid beetle warrior (Matthew McConaughey). Kubo must travel the landscape in search of magical items to protect him from the Moon King. Doing so plunges him into battle with giant magical skeletons, roaring sea monsters, and the Moon King’s evil daughters, all of which showcase the extraordinary talent of the animators at Laika.

At its core, Kubo and the Two Strings is a story celebrating the power of storytelling. There is meaning to be found in stories, Kubo asserts, and it’s these stories that deserve to be told and passed down through generations. This is the unifying theme that ties together all of the film’s plot threads and subtext. It’s simple, it’s elegant, and most of all, it’s poignant. Kubo and the Two Strings is both heartfelt and touching, and it’s hard not to fall in love with Kubo and his companions.

Every member of the voice cast does a terrific job at breathing life into these animated characters. Parkinson infuses Kubo with both a sense of courage and innocent naivety, while Theron turns Monkey into a character who is both nurturing and fiercely protective. The real standout of the voice cast is McConaughey, who forgoes his usual southern drawl for a more neutral accent. On one level, McConaughey’s Beetle is almost as naive as Kubo, yet he is staunchly loyal, and as the film goes one he becomes more and more complex, giving McConaughey a lot of layers to dig in to.

On a purely visual level, Kubo and the Two Strings is an absolute masterpiece. The film is painstakingly animated in a stop-motion format, which gives the film such a unique identity compared to the usual offerings of animated films. The film plays like a classic hero’s journey, which allows for a multitude of epic set pieces, each of which left me in awe wondering how they could possibly achieve these jaw-dropping scenes with stop motion animation.

The film’s only real issue is that of pacing. Kubo and the Two Strings is a brisk 101 minutes, yet Kubo embarks on such an epic journey that at times the film feels like it is rushing from plot point to plot point, slightly undercutting what is meant to feel like a long and perilous trek through these harsh landscapes. Even still in this short run time, the film manages to find time to deeply develop its trio of heroes, and forge meaningful and deep connections between them.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a magical and beautiful film, one filled with both glorious spectacle and drama that is determined to pull on numerous heart-strings. Like the stories of the legendary Hanzo, Kubo and the Two Strings is a story that needs to be experienced.

8.5/10

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