That detail adds a compellingly dark, Brothers Grimm-like undertow to director Travis Knight’s engaging animated film. Like all good kids’ movies, it’s more complex than it seems. Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson) is a street storyteller with magical powers: As he spins his tales for villagers while playing his three-stringed shamisen, self-folding origami figures act out the epic battles in a way that echoes this film’s own unique combination of stop-motion photography (for character close-ups) and CGI.
And just as Kubo’s themes include the power of story, Kubo himself becomes a hero of what could be one of his tales. With two eerie witches — his own aunts! — intent on plucking that dark-brown eye, he’s literally hurled into a quest to recover his late samurai father’s unbreakable sword and indestructible armor. His guides are a tiny, mute, origami samurai; a protective if irascible snow monkey (Charlize Theron); and a formerly human samurai who’s now a loyal but forgetful anthropomorphized beetle warrior (Matthew McConaughey).
While the leads are charming, Kubo, full of both grit and wonder, isn’t easily distinguishable from other plucky kids in fantasy adventures. Some of the story’s acts of magic appear out of nowhere, as needed, rather than being set up. And toward its end, the film gets a bit talky.
Nonetheless, Kubo’s flow of action and humor kept kids at a preview screening alternately engrossed and giggling. The film treats Japanese culture respectfully, even while adding touches like Kubo’s magical, windmilling power chords on his banjo-like shamisen. Perhaps best of all, though, are Kubo’s ravishing visuals — coastal sunsets, mountain vistas, a bustling village — and a lyrical sensibility that gives us treats like a boat made from autumn leaves, and a revelatory journey to the bottom of the sea. These are perfect dreamlike accompaniment for the story’s testament to the faculty of memory as humanity’s treasure.