Laika CEO and President Travis Knight makes his feature directing debut with Kubo and the Two Strings, an ambitious stop-motion animated fantasy adventure set in ancient Japan. It concerns a would-be storyteller who finds that the wild tales of magic his mostly catatonic mother told him are all true, tragedies wrought by a repressive, “cold, hard, perfect” father figure. This is where it should be noted that Laika is owned by Travis’ father Phil, a co-founder of Nike and one of the richest men in the country.
I’m not sure if or how to apply that information, which pretty much sums up everything good but not great about Kubo. It feels like the film could (or should) be a deeply personal work, but it’s also a nonspecific tangle of narrative, cultural and thematic threads, alternating between an alluring mysticism and a pedagogic tendency toward overexplanation. There’s a little too much clutter in the story and not enough urgency, and the whole of Kubo ends up as less satisfying than the sum of its setpieces.
But what jaw-dropping setpieces! A skyscraper-sized skeleton with swords embedded in its skull; giant underwater eyes that hypnotize their prey; a boat constructed from leaves and driftwood; a temple magically arising from the water. Starting with a thrilling and poetic prologue set on a moonlit, storm-tossed sea, Kubo proceeds to take your breath away every few minutes, even as the film keeps dropping more rules, back stories, explanations and stories within stories within stories into the mix.
After that excellent prologue, the film establishes Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) as a small-town minstrel, a good-natured, one-eyed boy who tells his stories through origami figures brought to life by a magical guitar. Back home, Kubo’s mother spins stories of a horrible family legacy involving witches, betrayal, a heroic dead father, a stolen eye and an evil, all-powerful Moon King (Ralph Fiennes, of course), stories that are proven true when Kubo flouts a rule about staying out after dark.
On the run from the Moon King and his daughters, Kubo embarks on a quest to retrieve his father’s armor, protected only by a sardonic monkey (Charlize Theron) and a samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey), both of whom resemble figures from Kubo’s past. For all the mishmash of the plot, Kubo ultimately lands on an easy, one-sentence homily, but no matter the tonal and structural quibbles, the film is recommendable based solely on the number of shots that will live with me forever.
Those gorgeous images are rendered with Laika’s usual flawless design and state-of-the-art animation, with the macabre house style and tone left largely intact from Coraline, Paranorman and The Boxtrolls. Kubo doesn’t quite live up to those previous efforts, but it’s still funny and weird and an all-around visual marvel. It’s the fourth Laika film and their fourth good one, making them the most reliable bet in the world of animated features now that Studio Ghibli is shuttered and Pixar is obsessed with sequels.