“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.
Catatonic by day, Kubo’s mother rallies at night to tell him stories and stress the one rule he cannot break: He must never be alone at night lest the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), the grandfather who stole his eye, return for the other one. Naturally, he breaks it and soon finds himself attacked by a pair of spooky, floating, mask-wearing aunts (Rooney Mara), a confrontation that ends with his mother using the last of her magic to save him. When Kubo wakes up, he finds himself in a snowy landscape and joined by the short-tempered Monkey (Charlize Theron), the flesh-and-blood version of a monkey charm his mother’s magic has brought to life to protect him.
From there, Kubo shifts into a quest narrative filled with unexpected turns and wild creations. Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a samurai with no memory who’s been transformed into a giant insect, joins Kubo and Monkey as they attempt to retrieve three magical pieces of armor. Their journey takes them into a sea filled with floating eyeballs, a cave protected by a giant skeleton, and, ultimately, into conflict with the Moon King himself. That may sound like a standard hero’s journey, but it’s one Kubo uses to consider the power of such stories and why they get handed down from one generation to the next. Stories are a type of memory and it’s memories that shape who we are, themes that the film explores by watching as Kubo comes to understand them for himself.
Directed by Laika president Travis Knight from a script by Marc Haimes and ParaNorman‘s Chris Butler, the film creates plenty of breathing room between striking action set pieces, space in which Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle’s bond deepens as their quest advances and grows more perilous. Kubo could have been content just to dazzle, which it does in virtually every scene. Its stunning, colorful landscapes and expressive faces make it look at times like the world’s most elaborate storybook brought to life and Kubo plays especially well in 3D, a technique that could have been made to showcase Laika’s stop-motion artistry.
It goes well beyond dazzling, however. The film moves beautifully, but it’s also beautifully moving. To reveal the source of the title’s “two strings,” for instance, would count as a spoiler, but it’s hard to look at the title without getting a lump in your throat once you’ve seen the movie. And though it features a big showdown as its climax, Kubo also features an unexpected, and deeply humane resolution. Even to its last scene, the movie seems to be determined to show us something new.