One of cinema’s first great visionaries was George Méliès, a French magician who, where others saw a passing fad, realized the movie camera’s potential to whisk viewers away to an almost infinite range of wondrous places, from Earth’s uncharted jungles all the way to the moon. George Méliès would have loved “Kubo and the Two Strings.”
Set in a fantastical ancient Japan and directed by Travis Knight, “Kubo” follows the titular young boy (voiced by Art Parkinson) on a quest to procure the enchanted armor that is his only protection against the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). It’s a story as old as the hills, loosely based on Japanese folklore, and rather than trick it out with newfangled plot twists, screenwriters Chris Butler (“ParaNorman”) and Marc Haimes, working from a story by Haimes and Shannon Tindle, delve headfirst into the realms of myth.
It’s a story that sails on the winds of all the stories that have come before it, one whose characters sense that they have time-honored parts to play, and are a little too fond of talking about it.
But as with any well-worn myth, what matters is not the tale but the telling, and it’s there that “Kubo” outshines virtually everything that the major studios have put into multiplexes this year. “If you must blink, do it now,” a young Kubo instructs at the movie’s outset, and it’s good advice. Every frame of Laika’s animation is realized with utmost care, seamlessly blending stop-motion and digital. Computer animation has made enormous strides, but just as last year’s “Max Max: Fury Road” proved there’s no substitute for the thrill of practical stunts, so “Kubo” reminds us of the unique magic of tactile animation.
As Kubo, who’s able to use his three-stringed samisen to manipulate objects, coaxes autumn leaves to fly into the air and take the shape of a boat, you gaze at the screen wide-eyed like a child trying to suss out the secret of a conjurer’s trick — so close to having it all figured out, but never knowing for sure. (A time-lapse video shown during the credits gives away a few of their secrets.) So many movies order us to be amazed, substituting scale for imagination, but “Kubo” has wondrous ideas to go with its technical wizardry.
Unfortunately, the movie’s characters are never as detailed as the world they inhabit. From “Coraline” through “ParaNorman” and “The Boxtrolls,” Laika has always tilted towards horror, and there’s a compelling creepiness to the movie’s early scenes, where Kubo is raised by a widowed, half-mad mother whose scarred faced resembles a mismatched jigsaw puzzle. With their long, straight black hair, the Moon King’s masked twin daughters, both voiced by Rooney Mara, evoke the ravenous spectres of “Kwaidan” and “The Ring”; they may scare grown-ups familiar with those movies more than they do their children.
But once Kubo embarks on his journey proper, he’s joined by a short-tempered monkey (Charlize Theron) and a giant samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey), both thinly conceived characters who do little more than distract from the story’s dark underpinnings. The issue of Hollywood whitewashing grows more complicated in the realm of animation, but neither Theron or McConaughey brings anything distinctive enough to their part to justify giving all the leading roles in a story set in Japan to white actors. George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa do have small roles, but their casting only makes it seem as if Laika knew they had a problem but lacked the resolve to deal with it properly.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is dinged by lackluster characterizations and bogged down by incessant references to the storytelling process, which, as is often the case, proves far less of a profound or resonant metaphor than people who tell stories for a living think it is. The characters talk about it so much it’s like the word “story” paid for product placement. But the impetus to tune out the movie’s words only makes it easier to feast your eyes on its breathtaking images, which after a summer of underlit glop feel like a tall glass of cool water (or, if you’re a grown-up, maybe an iced coffee or a nice rosé).
It’s not a flawless movie, but there’s real magic in it, and that’s more important, and no less rare, than perfection.