When “Kubo and the Two Strings” begins, the first sentence the audience hears comes from our titular character. “If you must blink, do it now,” he tells us. This is told to us as we first get a glance at nothing but a blank screen. And then when an image does appear, it becomes difficult for one to look away – let alone blink – for the film’s entire runtime.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is the latest from Laika Entertainment, a stop-motion animation company based in Portland, Ore. They’re responsible for three other features, all of which are much darker and more mature than your standard Disney or Pixar effort. “Coraline,” “ParaNorman,” and “The Boxtrolls” have proven that this studio has what it takes to be the next big studio in the realm of family entertainment. And “Kubo and the Two Strings” shows that this young company is still going strong.
Set in Japan, young Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson of “Game of Thrones”) may only have one eye, but he doesn’t let that stop him from living his life. Each day, he entertains the townspeople by plucking his shamisen and bringing to life some origami figures to tell of the conquests by his late father, a samurai warrior. It’s how he makes his living as he cares for his ailing mother.
But one day, Kubo accidentally summons an evil presence from his past. As he tries to escape danger, he is joined by Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), who assist him in his journey to figure out the truth behind his family’s history.
During the end credits, the audience is shown a behind-the-scenes look at “Kubo and the Two Strings” and how at least one of its biggest characters was brought to life. It shows how painstaking and time-consuming it can be to bring something like this to life. But the crew involved obviously love what they do, and we, in turn, love them for giving us a miraculous achievement.
The 3D effect is unnecessary, but it also doesn’t detract from what Laika has accomplished. “Kubo and the Two Strings” is filled with breathtaking scenery and masterfully designed characters. As each scene passes by, one can’t help but be amazed by the amount of detail the company puts into everything within it. Whether it’s capturing the sight of waves crashing together or the emotions felt by our lead characters, everything is done to near perfection.
Parkinson is terrific as Kubo, his first voice-over performance. He’s not the only actor here marking his animated feature debut either. The other is McConaughey, who adds a great deal of levity to the story. His dim-witted Beetle is a blast to watch.
Theron and the rest of the cast are great, too, and there’s even a moment in which George Takei squeaks in an “Oh, my!” I kept waiting for McConaughey to throw out an “All right, all right, all right,” but it never happened – nor did it need to.
Come Oscar time, the likely nominees for Best Animated feature will come from Disney and Pixar. Laika is no stranger to being nominated, since its three previous films were all given that honor by the Academy. Could this be their first win? It sure stands a strong chance at being that.