While Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks and Illumination vie for CG-animation dominance, a boutique studio has been pushing stop-motion to incredible new heights. Laika Entertainment utilizes meticulously crafted puppets and detailed sets to build such inspired adventures as "Coraline," "ParaNorman," "The Boxtrolls" and its latest stunner, "Kubo and the Two Strings."
Set in ancient Japan, the original story follows a young, one-eyed busker named Kubo (Art Parkinson of "Game of Thrones") who thrills villagers with his enchanting tale of a brave samurai opposing the malevolent Moon King. Using the magic gifted to him by his mother, Kubo brings these sensational stories to life by plucking his samisen (guitar), which transforms his collected sheets of colored paper into animated origami figures that engage in dynamic battles. Then, one fateful night, Kubo learns the Moon King is not only real, but also after the boy's remaining eye.
In a riveting chase scene, Kubo's humble village is razed, his mother faces off in a grim showdown against floating warrior witches known as The Sisters (Rooney Mara), and he's pitched into a dangerous quest to defeat the Moon King. The boy's only allies are Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), the former a no-nonsense guardian brought to life by his mother's magic, the latter a samurai cursed with amnesia and the body of a beetle.
This motley trio sets on a quirky family road trip, complete with spirited bickering, frolicking diversions and memorable meals together, not to mention rousing battles with monsters great and surreal. First-time director Travis Knight (Laika's CEO) does a marvelous job, folding warmth and humanity into his odd characters through voice and gesture. Parkinson brings pluck and a winking mischief to Kubo, while Theron delivers an edged tone that grounds the quest's high stakes, but softens on occasion to a hard warmth that swells emotional pivots. And McConaughey's breezy tone is perfectly fit to play an affable dolt, yet he brings in pangs of pathos as climactic reveals demand. We've come to expect nothing less of Laika, the team that has previously made us empathize with puritan zombies, a vengeful witch and a warehouse full of child-snatching trolls.
Regrettably, the villains are where this film flounders. Sure, Mara's Sisters are truly disturbing, their echoing voices playing like a reverberating nightmare that lingers even after you've shot up in terror from your pillow. But they are nothing but taunting whispers, creepy cackles, and cruel blows. Likewise, Ralph Fiennes' Moon King spouts little more than hate speech about humanity, giving the character as much depth as Kubo's paper-thin origami creations.
With no great emotional resonance achieved in these parts, it makes Knight's casting of white actors in every major role of the Japan-set tale all the more problematic. Meanwhile, performers of Japanese descent (like George Takei) are relegated to minor roles as villagers, as if they were afterthoughts. Considering Laika has been praised for representation in the past -- with the gay brother in "ParaNorman" and the strong heroines of "Coraline" and "Boxtrolls" -- it only seems fair to acknowledge when the studio has fallen short. Knight has found inspiration in Japanese culture, spinning it into an inventive, spooky and heartwarming adventure, but it's a shame that same cultural appreciation didn't extend to the voice casting.
Still, "Kubo and the Two Strings" is stupendous, offering a playful and enthralling adventure lush with curious critters, and alive with awe-inspiring animation. The stop-motion gives the film a sense of depth CGI should envy. But more than that, the craftspeople of Laika have once again constructed a world of color, texture and brilliant imagination that is absolutely extraordinary, sure to thrill children and astonish adults. Every frame of "Kubo and the Two Strings" is majestic. Every emotional beat resounds. Every heart string is played with tenderness and jubilation, by masters of an old art made new again.
"Kubo and the Two Strings" opens Friday nationwide.