With dark bangs draped over an eyepatch, a stack of colorful origami paper, and a two-stringed, lute-like instrument called a shamisen strapped to his back, young Kubo heads into a seaside village to put on a street performance for spare change. As he rocks the shamisen like the Joe Satriani of ancient Japan, the origami paper dances to life around him, folding into sharply edged characters and objects, and occasionally bursting into ribbons of confetti. He tells the legend of a great samurai warrior named Hanzo and the evil force that takes many forms in an effort to take him down. Kubo holds the villagers rapt, but inevitably disappoints them. He doesn't know how the story ends. It will be his quest to find out.
"If you must blink, do it now" are the first words spoken in Kubo and the Two Strings, a line that doubles as a primer and a brag about the abstract wonders to come. The film is asking the audience to accept every off-the-wall premise that it's given, up to and including a shamisen that can part a tidal wave or making origami figures dance like the runaway mops in Disney's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." There's a strong internal logic to the dense mythology it creates, but first the barriers between life and death, reality and fantasy, and past and present must come down. In the magical world of Kubo, these walls are transformed into pathways.
The fourth and, to date, best film from Laika, the Portland-based animation house responsible for Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls, Kubo and the Two Strings has more in common with the serene eccentricities of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away) than American brands like Disney/Pixar, Blue Sky Studios, or Illumination Entertainment. Though the tactility and dimension of its 3D stop-motion process sets Laika apart, Kubo has a specific faith that younger viewers will readily accept a world that has nothing in common with their own, save for the yearning of a child to complete his story and understand who he is.
Simply stated, the film is about Kubo's quest to locate three items that will help protect him from the wrathful Moon King: the Sword Unbreakable, the Armor Impenetrable, and the Helmet Invulnerable. And it's important to hold onto that basic goal, because the particulars of his adventure resist tidy description. Living in a rock cave with his sick mother, Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) discovers a terrible vendetta against them from his evil aunts, who appear like black-shroud ghosts in a Japanese horror picture, and the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), his grandfather, who plucked out his eye as an infant and wants to claim the other one, too. (Another expectation of younger viewers: They'll be able to withstand a little darkness.)
As Kubo is catapulted to a frosty, unfamiliar landscape, he gets some guidance on his journey from Monkey (Charlize Theron), an ally who materializes from a wooden totem his mother gave him, and a goofy human-insect hybrid named Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). They are pursued by supernatural threats that can appear in many different forms and their destination is so obscure that only Kubo's dreams hint at where to go—and even then, it's not a place that could be found by any compass or map.
In the topography of the imagination, there are no discernible trails leading from one location to the next. The greatness of Kubo and the Two Strings is convincing the audience to understand that immediately and intuit their way through a narrative that must be experienced to be understood. Director Travis Knight and his animators make Kubo's street performance a model for the film itself, which constructs an entire world out of origami paper—sharp-angled yet colorful and delicate, capable of folding into many different shapes and objects while subject to dramatic change, like being crumpled and thrown into the wastebasket.
With Kubo, Laika adds more texture to the dark beauty that's been the house style since Coraline, but it's more emotionally expansive, too. There's plenty of wry humor and samurai action to lighten the mood and a young hero who learns that decency, as much as courage and tenacity, can save the world. The film empowers children (and adults) to share in that idealism and dream along with it.