[Screen It]


(2016) (voices of Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron) (PG)

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Animated Adventure: With the help of some unlikely characters, a boy must find his late father's suit of armor to contend with evil family spirits that want him to join them.
In ancient Japan, Kubo (voice of ART PARKINSON) is a 12-year-old boy who enjoys entertaining the local villagers by spinning tales of a hero named Hanzo as accompanied by origami figures magically controlled by strumming on his shamisen. When not doing that, he cares for his mother, Kameyo (voice of BRENDA VACCARO), in a mountaintop cave. She also possesses magical powers but slips in and out of lucidity. Her main concern is keeping him safe from her father, the Moon King (voice of RALPH FIENNES), and her equally villainous sisters (both voiced by ROONEY MARA).

They want to bring him over to the dark side and are responsible for Kubo having lost his eye as an infant. When he ends up out after nightfall as his mother warned him never to do, he has an encounter with his aunts, with his mother seemingly giving her life to protect him.

When he comes to, he finds himself far away, accompanied by Monkey (voice of CHARLIZE THERON), a full-sized primate who's come to life out of the small talisman he's always carried around. Her only goal is to keep Kubo safe, and isn't pleased when a large insect man, Beetle (voice of MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY), grabs Kubo and takes him down into his cave. It turns out he's a former samurai who was cursed into his current state, and once served Hanzo who Kubo reveals was actually his father.

With his and Monkey's help, and led by a small origami version of Hanzo, Kubo sets out to find his late father's sword, armor, and helmet, all of which will help him fend him off his evil relatives.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Like many a young boy growing up in the 1960s and '70s, I was completely enamored with the stop-motion animation work of Ray Harryhausen. Whether it was the Cyclops and dragon in "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad," the Allosaurus in "The Valley of the Gwangi" (and other such critters in "One Million Years B.C." -- not to mention Raquel Welch), the title character in "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" or the alien monster in "20 Million Miles to Earth," I couldn't get enough of such creations.

That's because back in those times, CGI didn't exist and his sort of work was about the only way to bring such creatures to life (short of traditional animation, performers in rubber suits or sticking dinosaur accouterments onto lizards). But the piece de resistance was a particular sequence from "Jason and the Argonauts" where the title character and others battled human skeleton warriors.

As a child back in those days, it was simultaneously terrifying and mesmerizing. And while many of today's kids have seen lots of weird, amazing and far more photorealistic effects in movies, on TV and in video games, some might have a similar reaction akin to mine while watching a particular sequence in "Kubo and the Two Strings."

In that moment of this latest offering from the folks at Laika Entertainment -- that previously created the stop-motion animated films "Coraline," "ParaNorman" and "The Boxtrolls" -- the 12-year-old title character has found himself in a cave, along with those accompanying him on his journey (a talking monkey and a former samurai turned man-sized beetle), confronted by an enormous skeleton that's come to life.

That monster and the action that revolves around it are especially impressive -- and likely a bit of homage to Harryhausen's earlier work -- since it's also been done via stop-motion animation. And not just with any tiny model (painstakingly moved inch by inch and shot frame by frame to create the future illusion of movement), but a gargantuan one that needed all sorts of rigging apparatuses to do the moving (as noted during the end credits where the customary behind the scenes work is shown after the fact).

Of course, technical wizardry -- even of this decidedly old-fashioned art form -- can only carry a picture so far. Thankfully, director Travis Knight (who just so happens to be the president and CEO of Laika and former lead animator on their three previous films) and the screenwriting duo of Marc Haimes and Chris Butler have delivered an engaging and non-formulaic film with interesting characters that turns out to be one of the best animated offerings of the year.

Their work is so good, in fact, that you quickly forget you're watching something constructed via this animation style. Part Samurai story, part western and a whole lot of the storytelling structure known as the hero's journey, the film gets rolling when we see Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) regaling the townsfolk of a small Japanese village long ago with tales of a great samurai and his nemesis, the evil Moon King. With the help of a magic shamisen, his tale comes to life as origami figures play out the narrative to his narration that includes instructions to his listeners who also just so happen to be those of us watching this unfold on the big screen.

It seems his mother (Brenda Vaccaro) has tried to keep him hidden away from her father (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) and evil sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara) who, in a nod to "Star Wars" and other films of similar thematic ilk, want to bring him over to the dark side. The fact that they got one of his eyes as an infant hasn't exactly fazed him, although he longs to have some sort of supernatural contact with his samurai father who reportedly gave his life to protect him and his mom.

An attack by those sisters (who float through the air like witches wearing expressionless ceramic masks) moves the story into a different direction as the boy then finds himself in the company of an overly protective monkey (terrifically voiced by Charlize Theron) and the courageous if goofy man-beetle (Matthew McConaughey, also good). They're helping him on his quest to find the various pieces of his late father's samurai armor which will protect him from his bad relatives who, natch, keep showing up with ill intent.

That might sound dark and disturbing, and it is at times, especially with the filmmakers one-upping Disney's usual storytelling aspect of having bad things happen to parents of kid characters. But the filmmakers are smart enough to inject just enough humor and levity into the proceedings to temper the more serious material, all of which results in a near perfectly tonally balanced flick that kids and adults will have no problem liking and admiring.

Visually lush, "Kubo and the Two Strings" is an impressive technical achievement that also just so happens to work masterfully from a storytelling aspect. Go see it and prepare to be wowed. The film rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 4, 2016 / Posted August 19, 2016

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