Just like the titular, one-eyed storyteller who never seems to finish his tale to the satisfaction of his audience, Laika — makers of the excellent “Coraline” and “ParaNorman” — leave the real-world audience of “Kubo and the Two Strings” with much to be desired after a stellar start.
In crafting Kubo — a young boy who has an amazing gift for playing his three-stringed shamisen and creating wondrous origami displays with his playing — director Travis Knight (CEO of the Laika animation studio) has a cinematic stand-in for his own stable of creative talents. Having fashioned such a creatively potent character, the filmmakers pour a great deal of effort into making “Kubo” an incredible visual experience. Kubo’s ability to create is an obvious analog to “The LEGO Movie,” in which pure creativity is used to create the means to defeat evil. Between an entire ship conjured from tree leaves and a sequence involving a giant skeleton, the film presents some of the best stop-motion animation I’ve seen in a decade.
Equally impressive is the care with which the film opens and develops both Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson, “Game of Thrones”) and his ailing mother. Mom, who survived a perilous sea voyage with her one-eyed baby boy, is mostly catatonic — only rarely does she come out of her stupor to pass along tales of Kubo’s heroic father, which then are passed along to the villagers who Kubo entertains each day.
But when the sun sets, Kubo quickly packs his things before finishing his stories. His otherworldly grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), can track him down after sunset with the help of Kubo’s sinister, twin aunts (Rooney Mara).
Soon enough, Kubo’s village is destroyed and he is without his mother. Instead, he is befriended by the magically-come-to-life Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and comic-relief-on-steroids Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), who are fairly obvious stand-ins for the adults missing from Kubo’s life. They help him on a classic hero’s journey to gather up magical armor to help defeat his grandfather, though the story progresses haphazardly, the way a boy Kubo’s age might extemporaneously make up places and characters without reason. Toss in some lame jokes made by Beetle (McConaughey’s accent comes and goes like the pieces of origami paper on the wind), and it’s a radically different (and worse) film than what was established in the first act.
But “Kubo,” for all the potential it squanders, deserves credit for surprisingly presenting something you don’t see often in a kid’s film: strong, anti-theist themes. Kubo is alienated from other villagers as they light lanterns meant to usher their dead loved ones to the “blissful pure lands.” Our young protagonist suffers the awkwardness of failing to embrace a faith so many others have adopted. The evil Moon King — the force behind sorrow and destruction — is presented as a traditionally theistic being, urging Kubo to join his ancestors in the “infinite order.” “Kubo” suggests this form of faith is a kind of bad magic to be rejected. Those themes get slightly muddled by the end of the film, but they’re nonetheless striking.
Laika seems poised to create a film to rival the animated brilliance of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, but “Kubo” only echoes that greatness by virtue of its geography and visual prowess. Underneath it all, there is still a story to be told that does not have its proper ending.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is rated PG. One hour, 41 minutes. Three stars out of five.