Kubo and the Two Strings is lovely to behold, if viewers manage to keep their eyes open. It's an animated doozy and drowser at once, an uncomfortable mix of Miyazaki-style imagination and generic dullness. Snooze and you don't necessarily lose.
Aesthetically speaking, Kubo and the Two Strings is a step up for Laika, the Oregon-based animation studio that previously inflicted The Boxtrolls on audiences. Like that grotesquerie, Kubo — no title strings attached — beams with the self-congratulation of its stop-motion animators: Look at what we can do.
Can't they find something better to do with it?
Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson) is a one-eyed, soon-to-be orphan waif charming marketplace crowds by playing his shamisen while telling an epic story he never finishes. Plucking his magic twanger, Kubo telekinetically folds origami props, including a samurai warrior guiding him to a quest to save his other eye.
Kubo will retrieve three totems: his deceased father's sword, helmet and shield, in order to prevent his evil uncle, the Moon King (late arrival Ralph Fiennes) and his grandfather's ghost from plucking out his remaining eye. Kubo will be joined on the journey by Monkey (Charlize Theron), a knick-knack come to life, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), the paper samurai incarnated as a dim beetle.
Pause to shake your head "whaaa?" at any time.
To make a boring story short, Kubo and his pals move from one painstakingly detailed stop-motion fantasy to another; a ship conjured from autumn leaves, battling a giant skeleton, then a ghostly flying dragon. The artistry is undeniable, down to the crinkled faces of village elders.
Theron does well voicing Monkey, lending a maternal warmth and discipline the child needs. McConaughey is badly miscast, his baritone a poor fit for Beetle's airy wisecracks. Rooney Mara is suitably odd as Kubo's spectral aunts. Considering the Asian themes at play, it would seem proper for director Travis Knight to hire more Asian vocal talent in key roles. But that's one glaring place where the collision of faithful art and commerce occurs.
Let's make one more thing clear. Kubo isn't the family-friendly movie it's being sold as. This is a lumbering pseudo-Japanese folk tale steeped in the dark, supernatural intentions of dead ancestors. Not exactly Finding Dory. Kubo is a art house animal in mainstream sheep's clothing, nearly devoid of action, so don't blame me if the kiddies get restless, as they did at Monday's screening.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.