Young boy Kubo (Art Parkinson) lives peacefully with his mother in a cave, hidden from his grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) who killed his warrior father and took his eye as a baby. Making a meagre living during the day by entertaining the local villagers telling epic tales of the warrior Hanso, Kubo accidentally stays out after dark thus revealing his location to the Moon King and must embark on a quest - with his ornamental monkey (Charlize Theron) magically brought to life and a beetle/man hybrid (Matthew McConaughey) who fought in his father’s army - to retrieve the mystical Sword Unbreakable and the two pieces of armour he needs to defeat his grandfather.
Animation studio Laika are on something of a deadly run with four out of four of their stop-motion features being nothing short of masterful. Kubo And The Two Strings - something of a mouthful title-wise - is the fourth in this ‘quadrilogy’ of brilliance and may just be the best of the bunch. Flawless animation is one thing but that technical brilliance needs to be upheld with expert story-telling and this original tale by Shannon Tindle with a screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler is a canny balance of spiritual, action, laughs, emotion and mild horror. Keeping the tone just about on the right side of not terrifying the younglings (in fact all the rugrats at the press screening were enthralled) Kubo nevertheless does cover some upsetting themes of death and mutilation but deals with them in such a delightful way that kids should exit more enlightened than scared. Having said that Kubo’s two witchy aunts (voiced brilliantly by Rooney Mara) are delightfully creepy in that thrilling way that kids like to be spooked like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s child snatcher or the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.
Starting relatively seriously with Kubo lovingly caring for his traumatised mother, the film soon gives way to broad comedy once Monkey comes to life and the pair meet the amusingly ditzy Beetle. Kubo himself comes out of his shell and relishes the banter with his new companions and makes for a truly charming and likeable lead. Art Parkinson does a great job of keeping Kubo childlike and young despite his responsibilities and the sense of foreboding. Likewise Theron as no-nonsense Monkey and McConaughey as fun guy Bettle are more than stunt casting, crawling deep under the skin of their multi-layered characters. By the time Ralph Fiennes arrives with his atmospheric, commanding vocal work - not to mention how wonderfully his Moon King looks like Peter Cushing - the audience have already had their heart strings well and truly plucked by the uniformly excellent cast.
Superbly animated, genuinely touching and directed with a sensitive and lyrical hand by Travis Knight - making a truly impressive directorial debut - Kubo And The Two Strings stands shoulder to shoulder with any of Disney, Pixar or Ghibli’s best. A beautiful masterpiece.