Kubo and the Two Strings is the fourth feature film from Laika Studios; drawing heavily from Japanese mythology, this magical stop-motion animation is Laika's strongest and most accomplished film to date.
Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a young boy who lives atop a mountain caring for his ill mother. Every day Kubo travels to the small village at the bottom of the mountain to tell folktales using pieces of paper that fold themselves into intricate origami shapes when he plays his magical shamisen.
He tells stories of his father Hanzo, a brave samurai who fought his grandfather, the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), and his two aunts (Rooney Mara). One night, Kubo doesn't return to his cave on the mountaintop before sundown and his evil relatives come looking for him. After waking up in a blizzard with his wooden monkey idol (Charlize Theron) now acting as a walking, talking guide, Kubo embarks on a quest to find a mythical set of armour that can help him defeat the Moon King and his two aunts once and for all.
Laika are a studio that don't make the headlines in the same way that Pixar, Dreamworks or even Ghibli do. They certainly don't rake in the big bucks like Illumination or Blue Sky. But, four films in, they're starting to carve out their own little niche of sweet, dark, touching features that take stop-motion animation not just to another level, but another plane of existence.
I say this because Kubo and the Two Strings is achingly gorgeous to look at. Every frame is painstakingly crafted. The character design and level of detail that each model has etched onto it is mind-blowing. It's a visually arresting work of art brought to life, an ode to ancient Japanese history and culture that leaps from the screen.
Not only that, but the screenplay (penned by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler) does a fantastic job of moulding the fertile Japanese setting and infusing it with infectious energy and rich fantasy elements. I love that the film doesn't try to explain the reasons for a lot of what takes place; Kubo has a magical lute and that's that. It makes paper fold into shapes and animals, just accept it. He befriends a talking monkey and a samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey) because it's like a classic fairytale book come to life.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a lot of things; it's touching, stirring, scary, funny and beautiful all at the same time. I didn't even get chance to mention the fantastic score from Dario Marianelli or quality of voice acting from Theron, McConaughey, Mara or Fiennes. But most importantly, it's a film filled with imagination. Anyone, particularly children, will find themselves swept up in the potent blend of fantasy storytelling and visual flair, allowing their mind to whir for ages afterward. Even if Laika's previous efforts didn't do it for you, give Kubo a chance - it's magical, musical tune will soon have you swooning.
The Verdict: 9/10
Kubo and the Two Strings is in cinemas across Australia now