"How did they do that?" That's the question frequently asked among moviegoers after walking out of a stop-motion animated film, especially one that looks a dazzling as "Kubo and the Two Strings." Of course we all know the basics of the age-old technique that has been used by animators and puppeteers for about a century, yet stop motion films so rarely see the light of day (or, rather, the darkness of a movie theater) that we often forget just how magical they can be. A good stop motion film has one or two stand-out sequences that provoke viewers to ask the aforementioned question. A great stop motion film like "Kubo and the Two Strings" leaves that question lingering in the mind for quite a while, and then some. Just about every scene and every moment and every shot feels more alive than anything you might find in any 3D animated film today (yes, even in something by Pixar). Its beauty is wondrous to behold, and its narrative, though a tad predictable, is as mythologically resonant as any of the "Star Wars" films.
Right off the bat, the film dives into some pretty dark waters as Kubo's ill-fated mother, in a brief prologue, braves stormy seas under the moon to ensure her infant son's safety. From what she was shielding him, the film reveals bit by bit as Kubo (Art Parkinson, a.k.a. Rickon Stark from "Game of Thrones") embarks on his own journey. But before this, we see the kind of boy Kubo is before he is tasked with defeating the evil forces that seek to destroy him and his loved ones. Already is he capable of fending for himself, caring for his sick mother (who suffered a terrible injury in the prologue), and beguiling a crowd of villagers with stories of his long lost father, the legendary samurai known as Hanzo, told with magical origami underscored by Kubo's shamisen. This is not a child who has been fed false truths by his mother so that he may live the carefree life most parents wish their children to lead. Kubo is acutely aware of the dangers that await him should he stray too far from home, and of the dark history that taints his family's legacy.
Young viewers, much like Kubo, are trusted to be mature enough to handle the weightiness of the picture, something that too few family flicks are even capable of. In a time where a bunch of yellow munchkin-sized tic tacs are the collective face of children's entertainment, it's refreshing to see a film refuse to hold kids' attention with any amount of potty humor. (Okay, there is one small instance of this, which involves an origami chicken, but that's it.) This is not to say that "Kubo and the Two Strings" doesn't have any levity. The bulk of its buoyancy comes after Kubo is whisked away from his mother, who in a final act of sacrifice defends her son from her evil twin Sisters (chillingly voiced by Rooney Mara), and finds himself in the company of Monkey (Charlize Theron) in the midst of a snowy landscape. As the two set out to find Hanzo's armor so that Kubo may be protected from his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes; a natural in villainous roles), they encounter Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a noble goofball who claims to have been an apprentice to Hanzo, though he has trouble remembering his past. The banter between the trio is charming, but when it aims to be funny, it often falls a bit flat and clashes with the film's heftier undercurrent.
But like all great mythological stories, "Kubo and the Two Strings" is not at all concerned with dealing out contemporary crowd-pleasers. The true joy of watching the film comes from experiencing the level of detail and inspiration behind every image. Its Japanese roots are strong, though it has an aesthetic unlike other samurai adventures before it. Character and creature design, which are stellar, tip their hats to the work of Hayao Miyazaki and George Lucas. "Star Wars" fans will grin when they see that the trio's encounters with a giant skeleton and an undersea Garden of Eyes recall the Rancor and Sarlacc from "Return of the Jedi," respectfully. There are even a few points in the narrative so clearly cut from the same cloth that helped shape Lucas's space opera, but they're not as dramatic of course.
Being the quintessential hero's journey that it is, the film does feel a little underwhelming at times, but there is simply too much to be astounded by to mistake it for anything below average. It's not an old dog with new tricks either; that term applies to the never-ending "Ice Age" sequels and those idiotic Minions. "Kubo and the Two Strings" truly feels like an old legend recently unearthed by mythologists, told to us for the first time and yet sounds incredibly familiar in the most wonderful way. Go ahead and try to look for a better family film this year. I guarantee that you won't find it.