Paper cranes lift a boy hero into the sky in "Kubo and the Two Strings."

I must confess I’m less enamored with Kubo and the Two Strings than most other people seem to be. This stop-motion animated film is from Laika Entertainment, which is on some kind of tear after making The Boxtrolls, ParaNorman, and Coraline. It is simply glorious to look at in long stretches, just like their other films. Yet the story left me curiously unmoved.

Set in mythic feudal Japan, the film is about a boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) who as a baby was shipwrecked with his mother (voiced by Charlize Theron), an incident that left him missing his left eye and her drifting in and out of lucidity. Kubo’s forced to take care of them both by going to the village and entertaining crowds by playing his three-stringed lute called a shamisen and spinning stories that he illustrates with his origami figures. He soon gets swept into an even grander story when his treacherous family tracks him down and his mother uses her magical powers to send him to an enchanted land, where he must team up with a guardian monkey (also voiced by Theron) and a samurai trapped in a beetle’s body (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) to find the armor belonging to Kubo’s warrior father.

Even if you leave aside the whole whitewashing issue, Theron and McConaughey seem less than comfortable as a bickering pair of mentors. Maybe that’s why the comic relief here isn’t as fresh as in other Laika films, though that may also be down to writers Marc Haimes and Chris Butler being off their game. Composer Dario Marianelli tries to incorporate traditional Japanese instruments into a Western-style orchestral score, and the trick proves to be beyond him, a serious shortcoming given how central music is to who Kubo is. The boy’s final confrontation with the evil god king (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) bogs down in talkiness, too. The movie is supposed to be a tribute to the ability of storytelling to keep alive the memories of people we’ve lost, but other kids’ movies have dealt with these themes in more powerful terms.


Still, this thing looks glorious. First-time director Travis Knight fills the visuals with sharp angles and corners that echo Kubo’s origami creations. The film is a paean to the power of a boy’s imagination, and the animation brings that home with extravagant touches, like Kubo using his magic to build a boat out of Japanese maple leaves, or when those leaves turn into stars as the boy hears the story of how his parents fell in love. In contrast, Kubo’s murderous aunts (voiced by Rooney Mara) make a blood-freezing appearance as ghostlike presences levitating off the ground and wearing grotesque grinning masks. Kubo and the Two Strings is a visual feast. If only its storytelling had kept up, it would be another masterpiece from this animation studio.

[box_info]Kubo and the Two Strings
Voices by Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, and Charlize Theron. Directed by Travis Knight. Written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler. Rated PG.[/box_info]