“If you must blink, do it now,” begins the voice-over narration of the animated adventure “Kubo and the Two Strings.” “Pay careful attention to everything you see, no matter how unusual it may seem.”
A viewer would do well to heed that advice, not only because this breathtakingly beautiful film comes courtesy of Laika, the stop-motion animation studio behind the Academy Award-nominated eye-poppers “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” and “The Boxtrolls.” As hinted at in the second part of that warning, “Kubo” is both extraordinarily original and extraordinarily complex, even for a grown-up movie masquerading as a kiddie cartoon (which it kind of is). While the movie will certainly appeal to many children — with its juvenile protagonist (voice of Art Parkinson), talking monkey sidekick (Charlize Theron) and occasional comedy, mostly provided by Matthew McConaughey as a samurai warrior who has been turned into a giant, joke-cracking beetle — it is also richly allusive and metaphorical in ways that take some maturity to suss out.
It’s also, especially for younger viewers, pretty darn scary.
The action begins when a young Japanese boy named Kubo accidentally raises the malevolent, ghostlike spirits of his two maternal aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara). These witchy figures, who travel on trails of gray smoke, have already murdered the boy’s samurai father, blinded Kubo in one eye and attacked his mother, leaving her not just physically scarred, near mute and living in a cave, but suffering from what looks very much like PTSD.
That’s a tough, shivery tale, and it’s only the back story. We soon discover that Kubo’s mother’s sisters are coming to get our hero’s other eye. For reasons that Kubo will only learn later, it his grandfather, the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who wants it, leading Kubo to set off on a quest to retrieve his late father’s armor as a form of protection. On this mission, he is accompanied only by the wise and maternal Monkey, the brave but buffoonish Beetle and the titular shamisen, a magical stringed instrument that will come in handy, in ways you won’t expect, more than once.
Kubo is an expert storyteller, spinning yarns in the courtyard of his village as the film opens, using origami figures that come to captivating life in a knockout sequence of animation. So, for that matter, are the film’s raconteurs. First-time director Travis Knight, who previously worked in Laika’s animation department, is aided in that regard by screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, who have shaped an original story by Haimes and Shannon Tindle into a saga that feels somehow both ancient and entirely fresh, at once steeped in the tradition of evocative Japanese poetry yet deeply, universally relatable.
In other words, Kubo’s tale feels as if he’s living it as he is making it up, weaving something new out of old threads as he goes along.
Nothing — and no one — in “Kubo” is exactly as it seems. On the most basic level, the film can be read as a straightforward adventure featuring such adversaries as a giant orange skeleton and a dragonlike fish. Yet many of the film’s characters — even Kubo, as well as many of his actions and the objects he encounters — represent more than one thing. Like the origami figures that Kubo conjures into service of his stories, such intangible values as family, love, human connection, honor — even the act of storytelling itself — are given the kind of presence that exists most vividly only in the imagination.
That’s the kind of magic that “Kubo” traffics in, casting a spell you can’t spoil even if you never take your eyes off of the magician.
PG. At area theaters. Contains disturbing thematic elements, scary images, action and peril. 101 minutes.