The boutique stop-motion animation studio Laika has released only three full-length movies — Coraline, The Boxtrolls, and ParaNorman — but earned a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod for each one, and a reputation for providing a refreshingly odd alternative to the shiny-bright squareness of most mainstream children’s fare. Their fourth film arrives, appropriately enough, in a summer of nearly unchecked adorability, from the forgetful little blue tang of Finding Dory to the romping Persians and Pomeranians of The Secret Life of Pets and Angry Birds’ not-actually-that-moody avians.
What the ancient-Japan-set Kubo and the Two Strings offers is less Edward Gorey-esque than its predecessors, but often just as dark, or even darker; a callback to the bad old days of gothic fairy tales where boogeymen lurk, parents die, and children must be brave and strong and resourceful to survive. Young Kubo is all of those things: A clever, self-sufficient boy, he goes into the town square every day to earn spare change by strumming his shamisen — a sort of twangy, stripped-down guitar — and telling stories with his ingeniously fashioned origami figures, and returns in the evening to a dank cave to care for his mother. Her memory comes and goes, but the jagged scar running down her cheek — and the patch that permanently covers Kubo’s eye — reminds her that neither one of them is safe as long as the family she’s run away from is still searching for them. If Kubo fails to follow her rules and stays out after dark, her estranged sisters will come to collect his remaining eye, she says, and join it with the one her father stole from him when he was born.
Inevitably the sun sets one night before Kubo can make his way home, and his aunts (both voiced with shivery élan by Rooney Mara) arrive — witchy, terrifying twins with kabuki-white faces, billowing black shrouds, and feet that glide eerily just above the ground. Their pursuit forces Kubo to head out into the world alone and embark on a classic hero’s quest involving a magical suit of armor, a “sword unbreakable,” and many revelations, including the truth behind his mother’s trauma and his Samurai father’s fate, the supernatural origin of his extended family, and the mystery of the movie’s title. (Yes, shamisens traditionally have three strings; no, that Two is not an error).
First-time director Travis Knight — he served as lead animator on Laika’s previous three films — has given Kubo a gorgeously tactile look full of lavish depth and detail, and an engaging cast of characters, including Matthew McConaughey’s strutting warrior Beetle and Ralph Fiennes’ tricky, terrifying Moon King. The bickering interplay between Beetle and Kubo’s monkey protector (Charlize Theron) brighten an often harrowing narrative, though the jokes can feel misplaced tonally, as if they were refugees from the script of one of those other, sunnier Secret Life of Dory types. (Also disconcerting is the dearth of actual Asian voices on either side of the screen in an ostensibly Asian story, aside from a few supporting vocal roles.) Those arguments aside, Kubo is still a marvel — a visually stunning, richly imagined oasis in a sea of candy-colored safety, and one of the first truly original movies of the year so far. A–
CORRECTION: An earlier version misidentified the film’s director.