'Kubo and the Two Strings' is a stunner (PG)

It is a shame for the animation studio Laika that we're living in a time when there are so many studios casting dark shadows over the genre.


Visually, the company is making movies that are as beautiful and ethereal as anything from Pixar. When it comes to story, Laika is in step with the tales being spun at Disney.But the company behind such productions as "Coraline," "ParaNorman" and "The Boxtrolls" has not gained the same respect as the other companies. 


Their latest offering, "Kubo and the Two Strings," will get the company more attention. Continued quality like this means that one day the company will be as noted in the world of animation as Pixar and Disney.


The latest visual feast served up by Laika is a blend of action and emotional moments set in a fantasy world of the Far East. Told through stunning backdrops and fanciful stop-motion animation, the film looks at Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a young boy who lives a very spartan life surviving on the stories he tells to those living in a small seaside town.This world is shaken when Kubo accidentally summons a spirit who arrives bent on avenging an old debt. The only hope Kubo has is to go on a quest to save his family and friends aided by Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). The trek also provides answers to some of the biggest mysteries in Kubo's life.


First-time director Travis Knight, who was the lead animator on Laika's previous three films, presents the story with a beautifully fluid style. He can take the story from a realistic world of snow and ice to an ocean where the participants ride in a boat that seems to be held together by dreams and wishes. 


Whether it is the village setting that shows heavy Asian influences or the details of a dark cavern, "Kubo" is less of a motion picture and more of an uninterrupted series of stunning paintings that dance across the viewer's eyes.


This all supports a story that, on the surface, appears to be just an action tale where a young boy has been forced into the role of champion. But the film goes much deeper in examining the pain and power that comes with great loss. The movie has heart, and it beats loudest when dealing with issues of family.


Despite the emotional punch, the script by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler has some flaws. The biggest error is setting this tale in a Far East world. So much great animation comes from Japan that "Kubo" initially looks like a Japanese film that has been re-dubbed for an American audience.


The pair also needed to pay more attention to the finer points of the story. Kubo has a musical instrument he uses to produce magic. Each time he strums the instrument, he loses a string. At a critical moment, he fashions three strings for the instrument that he uses to save the day. And yet, the film is "Kubo and the TWO Strings." It's a small point but magnified by how it plays into the story.


What proves the biggest problem overall is the voice casting. Some of the villagers are voiced by actors of Asian heritage such as George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. They fit the setting perfectly. But the major players are voiced by those who don't sound exactly right for the roles. Parkinson and Theron fight a middle American accent that is benign enough to be passable, but no matter how hard he tries, McConaughey's voice work makes the Samurai-looking Beetle sound like he's not from the Far East but from East Texas.


The voice casting and writing misfires would have been deadly for most movies. The savior for "Kubo and the Two Strings" is that it is such a bountiful presentation of visual splendor that the errors can be overlooked.


Laika has not completely emerged from the shadow of the current giants of animation, but each film from the company shows that their own shadow is growing and if this pace continues, they will take their place among the current giants.

Voices:  Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei.

Director: Travis Knight.

A Focus Features release. Running time: 101 minutes. Scary images, action. Playing at area theaters.

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