With the landscape in cinematic animation having shifted almost entirely to computers, it’s easy to lose appreciation for the old-fashioned craftsmanship of the stop-motion art form.
Fortunately, it’s alive and thriving, as demonstrated by Kubo and the Two Strings, a stylish and charming coming-of-age adventure with lessons about courage, responsibility, mortality, the power of imagination, and the value of memories.
Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a teenager living in a seaside town, where he collects spare change on the street while retelling legends and playing his guitar. “If you must blink, do it now,” he warns onlookers at the outset.
But when a series of nightmares illustrate deep-rooted family strife, Kubo must save the day. After a mythical spirit is unleashed in the form of twin sisters (Rooney Mara) trying to settle a vendetta, Kubo’s ill mother casts a spell to put the precocious youngster — who uses uneven bangs to obscure an eye patch — under the supervision of a wise but sarcastic monkey (Charlize Theron) and a bumbling beetle (Matthew McConaughey).
Their mission is to eradicate the sisters and the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) while unlocking a mystery involving the whereabouts of Kubo’s father, respected in his village as a great warrior.
The film provides a wonderful showcase for advances in stop-motion technology. It’s filled with intoxicating dreamlike imagery, from its rich background texture to unique character details.
Meanwhile, the sophisticated story steeped in Asian folklore and cultural traditions is quite lovely, although its reverence might not translate for American children raised on movies overloaded with frenetic comic mayhem. However, they might identify with the resilient and resourceful young protagonist whose quest becomes a menagerie of hallucinations and magical powers.
You won’t find that here, as rookie director Travis Knight (the animation executive who produced stop-motion efforts Paranorman and The Boxtrolls) appreciates the gentler rhythms of the subject matter. The screenplay is bittersweet and contemplative — although the anthropomorphic animals and some high-flying origami figurines to provide some modest comic relief.
Those forced attempts at mainstream conformity create some awkward shifts in tone, but Kubo and the Two Strings admirably sticks to its vivid and imaginative vision. These days, that almost seems magical.