It's probably the very reason why Laika has never had a mainstream animated hit, but I love that their movies are too dark to simply be for kids. That's not to say they're too mature for kids to handle. ParaNorman, Coraline, and The Boxtrolls treated their entire audience with respect, transporting adults and children alike into imaginative worlds that were funny and scary in equal measure. Laika's latest stop-motion wonder is Kubo and the Two Strings, a vivid and wholly unique combination of Japanese samurai legends and mythology with American storytelling.
More of an adventure yarn than anything Laika has done before, the film follows Kubo (Art Parkinson), a resourceful and brave young boy who has perfected the art of storytelling. Actually, he's improved upon it; daily he goes to the town square strumming his magical shamisen (kind of a banjo but not quite) and earns a little money with grand tales of monsters and courageous warriors, literally bringing them to life with cleverly designed origami figures.
“If you have to blink, do it now!", he yells to the crowd before dazzling them with another show. The story he tells involves a warrior's quest to find the Sword Unbreakable, the Breastplate Impenetrable and the Helmet Invulnerable. It's the same story every time but everybody loves it, even the little old lady who just wants him to include the fire-breathing chicken monster. Kubo's nice enough to comply.
Before night falls he's back home at the cave where his mother needs caring for. Years earlier she saved him from powerful enemies. Kubo lost an eye as a result, his hair always drooped down far enough to cover it. The power his mother expended then has taken a toll; she's sickly and amnesiac, but always remembers to warn her son the dangers of staying out past sundown. Of course it happens one night anyway, and almost immediately he is set upon by his evil aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara), kabuki-faced demons who glide upon the air like ghosts. They herald the arrival of the Moon King (voiced devilishly by Voldemort himself, Ralph Fiennes) who really wants Kubo's other eye.
The attack brings further tragedy into Kubo's world, and forces him onto a quest that mirrors the story he tells every day. He's joined on this journey by his favorite toys, a wooden monkey (Charlize Theron) and a silent origami samurai, brought to life by the last of his mother's powers. The monkey is argumentative but a fierce protector, and is naturally suspicious when they encounter a brash beetle (Matthew McConaughey) with ties to a legendary warrior. Much of the film's humor comes from the bantering between Monkey and Beetle, a welcome respite from a quest that moves so fast you need to catch a breath. There are monsters to be fought, battles to be won, and many secrets to be revealed about Kubo, his family, and why his shamisen only has two strings when there should be more.
Laika movies don't feel like other animated movies out there. It's more than their unwillingness to coddle audiences; the animation is richly, painstakingly detailed in ways that Pixar and Dreamworks movies aren't. In his directorial debut, lead animator Travis Knight has given Laika another animated classic that parents can enjoy right along with their kids. There will always be room for sunnier movies about talking pets or whatever, but Laika transports you to unimaginable new worlds that can be a little dangerous. That's part of the fun. There's some stiff competition this year but I have a hard time believing anything can best Kubo and the Two Strings.
Rating: 4 out of 5