“If you must blink, do it now,” the title character demands in the first moments of Kubo and the Two Strings. He then elaborates by stressing the importance of our complete concentration lest we endanger our hero. It’s a plea that gets repeated throughout the film, one tied to Kubo‘s concern with the power of storytelling and how the stories we tell shape the world in which we live. It’s as gripping as opening lines get, but in some ways it’s also unnecessary. Once the latest film from Laika — the studio behind Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls — begins, it becomes impossible to look away.
We first hear those words spoken against the backdrop of a raging sea somewhere in feudal Japan where a mother, with a few strums of an enchanted shamisen, parts the waves as she flees an unseen force with her infant. She escapes, but not without suffering a grievous injury. When we next see mother and child, the child has grown into a boy named Kubo (voiced by Game of Thrones‘ Art Parkinson) who, despite missing an eye, possesses a lively spirit. He lives with his mother in a cave near a small village where he spends his days telling stories and playing the shamisen, which brings to life intricate origami creations who act out the fantastical adventures he describes. His crowds watch breathlessly, even though he never gives his stories an ending.
There’s a bit of magic in the way Laika depicts this scene, making paper swirl and twist as it comes to life and assumes the form of mythic beasts and a tiny samurai warrior inspired by the father Kubo never knew. Kubo strums confidently, knowing just what direction to push the story while keeping one eye on the crowd he’s trying to please. There’s a bit of self-reflection, too. What Kubo does with paper, Laika does with stop-motion animation, breathing life into tiny creations and making us care what becomes of them. And like their hero, they do it with heart and skill, offering one unexpected wonder after another.