Laika delivers more amazing stop-motion in ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’

Kubo teams with a grumpy monkey and an absent-minded beetle samurai.

Four stars

Kubo and the Two Strings Voices of Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey. Directed by Travis Knight. Rated PG. Opens Friday citywide.

Pixar gets all the attention among American animation studios for its singular artistic vision, but over the course of four films now, stop-motion animation studio Laika has built up a body of work nearly as impressive as Pixar’s early output, with a creative voice that’s just as distinctive. The studio’s new movie, Kubo and the Two Strings, may be its simplest, but it also may be its best one yet, a gorgeous and moving story about family, grief and the power of storytelling. Directed by Laika CEO Travis Knight, Kubo draws from Japanese folklore in its tale of the title character (voiced by Art Parkinson) and his quest through a mystical realm.

Kubo teams with a grumpy monkey (Charlize Theron) and an absent-minded beetle samurai (Matthew McConaughey) to piece together his late father’s armor and defeat the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). It’s a simple, sometimes predictable story with clear goals, but Knight and screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler give it nuance and resonance in the small character moments and the rich visual detail. There’s a dreamlike quality to the storytelling that blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy, as Kubo himself becomes a sort of stop-motion animator, using his musical instrument known as a shamisen and sheets of paper to bring small figures to life. The warm relationship between Kubo and his two protectors is sweet and a bit wistful, exploring how parents imbue their children with the hopes and dreams they were never able to realize in their own lives.

Like all of Laika’s movies, Kubo looks stunning, with its meticulously crafted figures, detailed backgrounds and expressive characters, and it immerses the audience in a world that is equal parts fantastical and grounded. Theron and McConaughey make for entertaining sparring partners as Kubo’s bickering guardians, and the movie is full of inventive adversaries and allies. It also deals with real sadness as Kubo confronts his fractured family, and it doesn’t shy away from the realities of grief. Those heavier themes are balanced by the exciting adventure storyline that moves from one dazzling set piece to another, and by a sense of optimism underlying the melancholy. It all blends together so effectively that the biggest emotional payoffs show up unexpectedly, and the most breathtaking visuals often come in the most understated moments. It feels like both a culmination of everything that Laika has been working toward and a promise of even more greatness to come.

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