Laika's late-summer bid for animation domination manages multiple triumphs. It's an original story that feels lived in, a kid-focused fable with real stakes, and it's a high-octane spectacle full of white-knuckle action and terrifying creatures that's matched every step of the way by heart.
In telling the tale of a one-eyed boy (Art Parkinson) in an ancient Japanese village, director Travis Knight throws a lot at the screen. There are battles with building-sized skeletons, morbid floating apparitions and snarling beasts. Yet amid the eye-popping visuals, the film still takes time for small moments of tenderness. It's a hero's quest in which Kubo—aided by a cantankerous monkey (Charlize Theron) and a cursed samurai who's mutated into a half-beetle (Matthew McConaughey)—must find golden armor to defeat the malevolent Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Inside all this is a fable about love, courage, death and the power of storytelling. It's glorious.
It's also the crowning achievement of the animation house that Phil Knight built. Blending puppetry, stop-motion and CGI seamlessly, Kubo looks light years ahead of the technical wonders of Laika's debut feature, Coraline. It is luminescent and tactile, layered, fully realized and wholly original.
If there's any quibble, it's a slight case of tonal inconsistency. This is a kid's film that pulls no punches with its terrifying images. Much of it looks like a nightmarish mirror reflection of Spirited Away, but our hero also creates whimsical moving origami figures. At one moment, Monkey and Beetle are comic relief, the next they're locked in battle with bloodthirsty demigods. As a result, kids will probably be reduced to quivering masses while those drawn by its more adult fantasy elements will roll their eyes at the goofball humor. But neither set will be able to take their eyes off the screen.
Drawing on everything from ancient folklore to samurai cinema and Princess Mononoke, Laika's newest epic plays out like a high-octane Hayao Miyazaki puppet show full of simply rendered morals and staggering action. Kubo transcends its kiddie-flick leanings to become a modern fable, emerging not just as the year's best animated film, but as an instant classic.
Critic's grade: A
SEE IT: Kubo and the Two Strings is rated PG. It opens Friday at Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Lloyd, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, St. Johns Pub and Theater, Vancouver.