The very air itself is alive with magic in “Kubo and the Two Strings,” with flocks of origami birds soaring and swooping through the sky, sent aloft by the young title character of this marvelously inventive stop-motion animated picture.
Kubo is a magician-in-the-making, uncertain at first as to the extent of his magical powers but totally certain of his power as a storyteller. He’s a kid who can hold the people of his village in medieval Japan spellbound with his tales of sorcery and heroism, of battles fought and monsters vanquished, tales illustrated by his elaborate brought-to-life origami figures, produced at lightning speed by his dextrous fingers.
It’s magic that can literally carry him aloft, borne upward by his massed paper birds, and carry him out to sea on a ship conjured from fallen leaves.
Visual wonders there are aplenty in “Kubo,” visuals firmly rooted in Japanese culture, that are painstakingly created by the dextrous digits of the army of stop-motion puppeteers employed by Laika, the Oregon-based animation studio whose previous pictures include “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” and “Boxtrolls,” all uniquely distinctive movies in their own right.
The visuals are in service of a story that’s immensely sad and profoundly moving.
Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a wounded kid whose left eye was plucked out at an early age, the socket now hidden by a patch and long hair hanging over his face. Wounded too is his sorceress mother, her face scarred, her mind and powers fading, her care in the hands of her devoted son.
The fanciful stories Kubo spins out for the rapt villagers are precursors to the epic quest he embarks upon when his mother’s evil twin sisters — monstrous levitating women clad in black with impressive wide-brimmed witchy black hats — return to try to pluck out his other eye (bad family history there). He flees, and along the way picks up two protectors, a fiercely dedicated white monkey (sternly voiced by Charlize Theron) and a man-sized samurai-armored beetle (playfully voiced by Matthew McConaughey). The interplay of the no-nonsense monkey and the beetle, who is rather a goofball, gives the picture a nice leavening of humor. So it’s far from grim and dire, though there are a number of scenes that are quite scary. Parents of very young children might want to give the picture a pass.
The emphasis on Kubo’s storytelling prowess is a key ingredient of the picture, which is directed by Laika’s CEO and president, Travis Knight, and written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler.
Through storytelling, the boy believes, our memories of loved ones who are no longer with us are kept alive. As such, as the wise monkey observes, “memories are powerful things” — and precious.
With all its heartbreak and loss, “Kubo” is ultimately a positive, though bittersweet tale. The boy’s admonition, uttered at the start, “Pay careful attention to everything you see, no matter how unusual it may seem,” is advice worth heeding. Close attention by the audience will be richly rewarded by this lovely, heartfelt picture.
Kubo and the Two Strings
☆☆☆☆☆out of 5
Cast: Featuring the voices of Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes and George Takei.
Director: Travis Knight.
Running time: 1:41.
Rated: PG, for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril.