Laika is not an animation studio to coddle and over-protect children. The studio that scared kids and challenged younger viewers with “PAraNorman” and “Coraline” gets back to what it does best with “Kubo and the Two Strings,” an imaginative, scary and wonderfully rendered stop-motion fright about a little Japanese boy battling witches and a ghost with only his banjo to protect him.
It plays like a classic folk tale, with a hero on a quest, supernatural threats and super friends to help him pursue three magical talismans. But it’s an original script. The only film I can think to compare it to is a Chinese folk tale film — “Life on a String” — about an aged musician whose playing was so lovely he could stop armies, mid-battle, with his tunes.
In Asia, they take their banjo-picking seriously. In Japan, it’s called a Sanshin or Shamisen, in China, a qinqin or sanxian.
“If you have to blink,” our young hero narrates, “do it now.”
Kubo is a mesmerizing storyteller, a boy who accompanies himself on the magical Shamisen his mother gave him. She saved him from death at sea, and from a worse fate before they fled in a small boat. Kubo lost an eye, as an infant, to a hated villain.
Their escape cost his mother much. Her injuries are taking her memories, so Kubo walks from the cave where they live each day to tell his stories, actually the same story, and his banjo causes the origami he has created to illustrate it to spring to life.
The hero of his tale must find the Sword Unbreakable, the Breastplate Unpenetrable and the Helmet Invulnerable to battle giant origami sharks and crabs and a fire-breathing origami chicken.
“Got to have some comedy,” an old villager (Brenda Vacarro) counsels.
Whatever he does, though, must take place before nightfall. “Never, ever stay out after dark,” Mother preaches.
Of course he does, and of course that’s when the witches and the ghost find him and renew their pursuit of his remaining eye.
His quest to “the very edge of the Far Lands” is the same as that of the samurai of his story — get the sword and the armor, so you can fight back.
The toys of his childhood — a wooden monkey doll (Charlize Theron) and an origami samurai, help. So does a samurai beetle, voiced with daft bravado by Matthew McConaughey, a hero sure of his “indespensibilities.”
“Got to have some comedy,” after all.
The stop-motion animated art has found digital, technological shortcuts since the glory days of the California Raisins, whose studio gave birth to Laika. But the texture, the tactile beauty of the puppet-like characters, model sets and hand-crafted props live on and make the stop motion art distinct from the digital animation that displaced traditional hand-drawn cell animation.
Kubo’s yarn-like hair hangs over his eye patch, the monkey’s fur blows in the breeze (there’s a lake to cross) and the witches, voiced by Rooney Mara, have a menace above and beyond what mere digital drawing would have given them. They wear capes and porcelain masks and vast, black hats, like Guy Fawkes in “V for Vendetta.”
They are truly chilling, and Kubo and his friends must battle these sword-wielding ninjas repeatedly before facing a villain with the voice of a certain boy wizard’s nemesis. Listen, too, for the voice of an Asian American TV icon in a supporting role.
The story’s energy flags, here and there, but the life-lessons are rich, the brawls are epic and you and your children will never look down on banjos again. “Kubo” and his two strings (actually, he has three) rock.
And Laika has a second masterpiece to park alongside “Coraline,” the best animated film of the summer, and perhaps of the year.
MPAA Rating:PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril
Cast: The voices of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Rooney Mara, Brenda Vacarro
Credits: Directed by Travis Knight, script by Marc Haimes, Chris Butler . A Focus release.
Running time: 1:41