Within this heyday of computer-animated movies, the greatest special effect is creating emotionally resonant characters. The adventure fantasy "Kubo and the Two Strings" is seamless stop-motion storytelling, from Laika, the independent animation studio that gave us the darkly entertaining "Coraline," "ParaNorman" and "The Boxtrolls." Yet wizardly art direction isn't the film's most striking quality. It's the endearing, playful, touching, cantankerous and sometimes frightening individuals who supply this spectacular story about friendship, courage and sacrifice with its life force.
Set in feudal Japan, this is an original action-adventure story that can appeal to every film lover around the world. It follows Kubo, a lonely, creative kid raised by his widowed mother in a cave close to their seaside village. A skillful artist, he collects coins in the market each day, dazzling the locals with his lifelike origami animals and storytelling skill. He drives fans into a frenzy of excitement with his rock sensibility on his three-stringed lute. But he stops performing and heads home fast at sunset.
His mother's rule is that he must return before night, when the chilling Moon King takes possession of the sky. The monarch is Kubo's grandfather, who wanted to pull him out of humanity and into his unearthly domain as an infant. Kubo's magically powered mother barely survived the mystical battle in which the Moon King took Kubo's left eye, and she warns him that every night he's in danger again. The boy sets off on a Joseph Campbell-inspired hero's journey toward distant lands, a lowly yet heroic pair of allies and struggles against supernatural forces, traveling in a boat constructed of leaves and battling a giant skeleton.
Diverse human characters and fantastical creatures bursting with personality probably drew the movie's all-star vocal cast to play the parts of gorgeously sculpted clay figures. "Game of Thrones" fan favorite Art Parkinson turns Kubo into a thrilling young hero. His allies are a grumpy maternal simian called Monkey, played in gruff perfect pitch by Charlize Theron, and a man-sized insect called Beetle, given a charming comic relief turn by Mathew McConaughey. Ralph Fiennes brings a sense of emotional reality to the ghostlike Moon King, while Rooney Mara radiates a chilling menace as his eerie twin daughters, who sneer at Kubo's mother, "Love made her weak."
"Kubo" feels like a gorgeously illustrated Japanese fable, with gloriously crafted images serving strong narrative points. It resembles an intelligent, strong-scripted mash-up of "Harry Potter" and Hayao Miyazaki's dazzling fantasy "Princess Mononoke," balancing a childlike sense of wonderment with subjects possessing a much more complex, mature and serious tone. Director Travis Knight trusts his audience, introducing moments of sorrow and thoughts about the transience of life that most animated films would avoid at all costs.
The dreamlike tone creates a dense cinematic experience that carries us to a world that is harsh yet stunningly beautiful. Of course no competitor is allowed to surpass Pixar in the annual Oscar derby, but if they were, this would be a very tight race. It's easily a contender for any list of best films of the year.
MPAA rating: PG (for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril).
Running time: 1:41