Laika, the Portland-based animation studio, prides itself on being different from its larger competitors; its time-consuming stop-motion techniques have previously yielded such distinctive fare as “Caroline,” “ParaNorman” and “The Box Trolls.” All were critical favorites that won only modest public attention, and its latest is likely to suffer the same fate. “Kubo and the Two Strings” is quite simply a technical marvel, a film that’s extraordinarily beautiful in visual and aural terms, especially when viewed in IMAX format with Dolby Atmos sound. But its storyline, which mirrors Japanese folktales, is as unlikely to appeal to mainstream American audiences any more than Isao Takahata’s “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” did.
The story is a quest set in long-ago Japan, originating in—we gradually learn—a familial dispute between the Moon King and his rebellious daughter. A prologue introduces a woman (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) saving her baby, which has lost one eye, from a storm at sea. But she is injured in the process, and takes refuge in a cave, where she raises the boy. Now eleven, Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a doting caregiver to the mentally troubled woman. He treks to the nearby village to give vivid recitations of the adventure stories his mother has told him of his samurai father in the town square, employing his skill playing the guitar-like shamisen and constructing striking origami figures that he sets in motion to act out the tales. His mother impresses on him, however, the necessity of always returning home before dark.
One day, however, Kubo stays in the village after nightfall to participate in a ritual in which villagers briefly summon back the spirits of the departed, hoping to contact his father—to no avail. Instead there appear two black-robed, floating figures in Noh masks (Rooney Mara), who inform the boy that they are his aunts and beckon him to them with plumes of grey smoke which, when he runs away, turn into destructive blasts. The village is demolished in the process, and Kubo is saved from the wraiths only by his mother, who fends them off with the last vestiges of her magic.
When Kubo awakes from the turmoil, he finds that a wooden monkey charm has been brought to life by his departed mother to act as his protector (Charlize Theron). Under her not-so-gentle prodding they set off to locate the three elements of his father’s weaponry—the sword unbreakable, the armor impenetrable and the helmet invulnerable—that will help him confront his aunts and his imperious grandfather the Moon King, who have been searching for him ever since his mother betrayed them for love of a human. Their journey takes them to a cavern where they find an amnesiac sumarai who’s been turned into a human-sized beetle (Matthew McConaughey). He joins them, and together they face off against a variety of foes, including the two malevolent aunts and, in the end, the Moon Knight himself (Ralph Fiennes), who proves to have frightening transformative powers. The actual identities of the monkey and the beetle will also be revealed, though they will come as no surprise to most viewers.
Throughout what sets “Kubo” apart from most other animated features are the gorgeous images, which represent stop-motion work at its most impressive. The technique has long given a tactile quality to the animated figures that hand-drawn methods and computer-generated processes can’t match, and under the general oversight of Travis Knight, the Laika head directing his first feature, the result is often astonishing to behold. The Atmos sound, whose deepest tones actually make the theatre seats shake, is no less remarkable. On a purely technical level this is a masterful piece of work.
But while the look of the film is amazing, the content may be a problem. Aficionados of the Japanese folktale tradition will be impressed by how faithfully the script embraces it, but others might find the picture comparatively bland. The voicework is fine across the board—Parkinson makes Kubo an appealing tyke, Theron gives her lines an agreeably acerbic tone, and McConaughey certainly goes with the beetle’s goofiness. Brenda Vaccaro makes an elderly villager a cackling charmer, and George Takei gives oomph to a local elder, while Mara and Fiennes bring their most smoothly malevolent quality to the villains. But the actual dialogue lacks pizzazz. Generally it’s more serviceable than inspired, and the attempts at humor—particularly the loony jokes told by the Beetle—mostly fall flat. Knight, meanwhile, stages the action sequences with panache, but his general approach is more sedate, emphasizing elegance over excitement. A perfect example is an episode in which the intrepid trio cross a forbidding lake in a magnificent ship confected from leaves by Kubo. It features a ferocious clash between the monkey and the aunts, but more memorable is the underwater part of the face-off, in which creatures that resemble single huge eyeballs mesmerize the boy.
That’s typical of a picture that will be prized by connoisseurs of animation but other viewers might find too esoteric and faintly lethargic—a film that, oddly for one aimed at a family audience, adults might appreciate more than their children.