Magic, music, and monsters come together to create a marvelous new fairy tale in stop-motion house Laika’s stunning Kubo and the Two Strings. In a fantasy ancient Japan, 11-year-old Kubo (the voice of Art Parkinson: San Andreas) earns a few coins to care for his ailing mother by telling epic tales in the village square: with the strum of his lute, he can send origami papers flying into the air and folding themselves to animate and illustrate his stories. But even more magic lurks inside Kubo, which his grandfather, the evil Moon King (the voice of Ralph Fiennes: Hail, Caesar!), wants to snatch from him; the Moon King has already taken one of Kubo’s eyes, when Kubo was a baby, which sent his mother fleeing into hiding with infant Kubo. But now the Moon King is nearly upon them, and intends to make Kubo reign alongside him in vicious terror. So Kubo embarks upon a journey, with the help of an enchanted monkey (the voice of Charlize Theron: The Huntsman: Winter’s War) and a strange beetle-man warrior (the voice of Mathew McConaughey: Free State of Jones), to find the hidden objects of power that will help him defeat the Moon King.
Scary and funny, sweet and bitter in equal measures, Kubo is mighty and moving, its gorgeous animation style offering up imagery that is by turns serene — candle lanterns floating down a nighttime river are lovely — and chilling: the menacing witches The Sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara: Carol) are nightmare fodder even for grounded grownups. Though not based on any preexisting tale, Kubo — the directorial debut of Laika vet Travis Knight (a producer and animator on The Boxtrolls and ParaNorman), with a script by Chris Butler (ParaNorman) and new screenwriters Shannon Tindle and Marc Haimes — sings with a delightful fanciful vision of Japan, visually and culturally, something so rare in Western storytelling: Kubo doesn’t look or feel quite like any movie we’ve seen before. It also encompasses some tough emotional realities that movies intended for children often avoid: past and ongoing traumas that Kubo endures; the difficulties of caring for an unwell parent, especially for a child; and even the fact that “family” doesn’t always mean “unconditional love.” For Kubo — and for many of us — family is not a static state but an ongoing story and a quest that has not ended even when his adventure has.