From the dark and intense opening scene, accompanied by a poetic narration, there are signs Kubo and The Two Strings is the product of highly imaginative and unconventional stop-motion animation studio Laika, home of Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls.
The skill and patience involved in bringing this story to life are obvious, with stop-motion animation so beautiful and seamless it would be easy to miss its production origins.
Add an epic tale of love and sacrifice, a collection of eclectic and uniquely designed characters, and a smart script that's witty, heartbreaking and full of twists and turns, and you know you've got a Laika film.
Kubo and The Two Strings is a family drama set in ancient Japan. A mythical tale, it tells the story of young boy Kubo, who lives with his mother in a cave on the edge of a remote seaside village. He spends his days telling the locals stories about samurai warriors, enchanting them with his ability to magically bring origami figures to life with his lute.
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But there are signs Kubo's life is not as idyllic as it sounds. Hiding from a powerful grandfather, who ripped his eye out as a baby, he's responsible for looking after his ailing mother. In order for mother and son to remain safe, Kubo must stick to his mother's strict rules.
When he accidentally breaks one of the rules, the terrible consequences set him on a quest to find the pieces of his dead father's armour, which will enable him to defeat the evil gods and monsters trying to destroy him.
Kubo not only learns about his past, and who he is, but he also learns how to deal with death; to cherish the stories of those he loves as a way of keeping them alive in his heart. It's a similar message imparted in the equally adventurous animation The Book of Life.
If it sounds full on, it is. But there's plenty of humour to lighten the mood, mostly delivered by a hilarious samurai beetle (McConaughey) and a protective monkey (Theron), who accompany Kubo on his quest. Both Theron and McConaughey are excellent and, along with Game of Thrones' Art Parkinson, who voices Kubo, they're an endearing trio.
There are aspects of this special story that feel a little light. Kubo's quest to find three pieces of armour feels like we've strayed into video game territory, and the pace ebbs and flows in the final act. Thankfully the stunning animation, sound effects and soundtrack work well together to distract us from these issues.
In the hands of others, the tragedies that befall young Kubo may have made for depressing viewing. This is what makes Laika special; debut feature director Travis Knight and his experienced team have taken a heartbreaking story and turned it into heartfelt and magical entertainment.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey
Director: Travis Knight
Running Time: 92 mins
Rating: PG (Violence and scary scenes)
Verdict: A fantasy adventure filled with heart and soul, and beautiful animation.