When Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) was a baby, his mother took him across the ocean to a land far away, though as the journey drew to an end she was knocked out of her boat by a huge wave and hit her head on a rock. When she awoke, she was not exactly the same person, but her love for her son endured, and they lived together in a cave where Kubo would, when he was old enough, venture out each day to visit the nearby village. Once there, he would use his magic powers to tell stories, "busking" on his two-stringed instrument to make origami figures spring to life, all to the enchantment of the locals who would treat him as one of their own. However, he had to return to the cave before nightfall, for his mother warned him of dire consequences if he did not...
Kubo and the Two Strings was the fourth film from the American stop motion experts Laika, a studio funded by the profits from the multi-billion dollar Nike shoe empire, which explained why they continued to make critically acclaimed animations that nevertheless disappointed at the box office. There was some wailing and gnashing of teeth that after the relative success of Coraline, their efforts had not been as widely seen as the blockbusters spawned by the likes of Pixar or Dreamworks, but the fact remained their choices of story were rather niche, and it didn't matter that all the money they cost to make was right up there on the screen - every one of their productions looked fantastic - they were not immediately recognisable properties.
That in spite of how distinctive the Laika output was, though naturally as was the way with this kind of carefully rendered entertainment it picked up a cult following instead. Fair enough, it was a more substantial appreciation than animators such as, say, The Brothers Quay, but in the field of family cartoons they were more likely to appeal to the studious, smart kids than they would have been if they had simply churned out a Kung Fu Panda crowdpleaser or somesuch. That comparison was not necessarily odious: Dreamworks had chosen that subject to bring in the lucrative East Asian market, and subsequently reaped the benefits. It would seem Laika, here loosely adapting Japanese folk tales and general milieu, were aiming for the same with Kubo.
The difference being Dreamworks went purposefully broad with their panda, unafraid to crass things up with schmaltz and basic slapstick, whereas here was something finely tuned and exquisitely detailed where you could see the care and attention that had gone into bringing a more complex personality and set of emotions to the table. Kubo was essentially in an adventure story where he discovers he and his mother are sought by his grandfather and two scheming aunties, who have already taken one of his eyes (he sports a patch) and now want the other one so he can join them to rule over the mortal world with cruelty and a cold lack of empathy for anyone they survey. When the boy accidentally stays out of his cave after dark, the Moon King sends the his daughters to pick him up - and pluck out that other eye.
Kubo gets away, but at the cost of losing his mother; luckily she has used the last of her magic to bring to life his toy monkey figurine (voiced by Charlize Theron), which now acts as his guardian. No sooner has he gained this companion, than he goes on a quest to find a sacred sword and armour, pointed in the right direction by a little origami warrior, a representation of his late father who died saving he and his mother, and then they meet the giant beetle (Matthew McConaughey). This forgetful soldier and Monkey adopt a "daddy means fun, mommy means business" attitude to looking after the child, and there's a good reason for that which doesn't spoil the experience to realise ahead of the twist. What was refreshing turned out to be in that confrontation with evil, and the revelation that love and respect and humour did not make you weak, it can disarm the vile and despicably manipulative and create beneficial memories that will build your character in a warm, benevolent manner, making you a better person in the long run. Quite complex for such a project, and it was that attitude to storytelling, a tribute to itself in many ways, that made Kubo a gem. Music by Dario Marianelli.