Early in "Kubo and the Two Strings," our hero meekly strides into an ancient Japanese village marketplace the way Toshiro Mifune might have entered a Kurosawa film, but with greater bustle.
Kubo, a young boy with bangs draped over his patched eye, is no traditional warrior. He sits down, pulls out his shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese lute) and soon his strumming sends the paper sitting in front of him spinning through the air and folding itself into fantastical origami forms. A yellow chicken, flapping its wings; Kubo's samurai father, in red, slashing his little sword.
"If you must blink, do it now," Kubo announces before commencing with his story, one acted out by the dazzling, folded figures to a crowd of rapt onlookers.
The scene typifies the wonder of "Kubo and the Two Strings," the latest from the Oregon animation house Laika, whose president and chief executive, Travis Knight makes his directorial debut with the stop-motion animated film. Propelled by imagination rather than might, "Kubo" is a quest of family and folktale through dazzling animated landscapes,
Kubo is a kind of an animator, himself, finding his way through a tale he's trying to sketch as he goes like an origami "Harold and the Magic Crayon." It's the most ambitious and bright of the dependably lively, often dark and sometimes quite gorgeous string of curiosities from Laika, whose gothic and offbeat creations ("Coraline," "ParaNorman," "The Boxtrolls") tug at strangeness and mystery the way other, less mature animations grasp at more comforting feelings.
The film's dramatic first scenes show a baby Kubo and his mother washing up on shore. The journey leaves Kubo's mother feeble; years later, Kubo (Art Parkinson) is largely caring for her. The story he tells at the market, of an evil Moon King, come from his mother's murmurings, yet he understands his past only vaguely.
But, by staying out past dark, Kubo accidentally summons spirits from their past, unleashing his spooky twin aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara) and later the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), himself. Kubo flees his village, but soon is joined by an unusual pair.
Monkey (Charlize Theron) is his solemn guide, a furry sage who materializes overnight from a small wooden monkey charm. The other is Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a part insect, part human warrior who pledges to defend Kubo. As Kubo unfolds both his mysterious past and his destiny, they offer guidance and — especially on Beetle's part — comic relief along the way.
"Kubo and the Two Strings," sometimes straining for quirkiness, isn't without fault. For a film deeply rooted in Japanese folklore, the cast is full of American voices.
And nothing quite ruins a good story like the teller nattering on about the beauty of storytelling. That "Kubo" is about how stories bind people and families together is clear enough from the tale itself. But toward the end of "Kubo," the word "story" runs amok, breaking the movie's spell.
Still, the handcrafted textures and wry self-awareness of "Kubo and the Two Strings" make Knight's film resolutely its own tale, one that folds into its own exotic shape.