It's become routine, even banal, in pop culture for stories to rhapsodize about the power of storytelling. One might call it a form of self-congratulation. Yet stop-motion animation studio Laika breathes new life into this tired theme in the opening scenes of Kubo and the Two Strings, a breathtaking family fable set in ancient Japan.
It's a sequence that, like the famous prologue of Pixar's Up, makes equally artful use of speech and silence. "If you must blink, do it now!" proclaims an imperious narrator, demanding that we pay rapt attention to a chaotic scene in which a mother, fleeing from supernatural forces, uses magic to save her infant from a watery grave.
In the next scene, the infant has become a boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson). He spends his mornings caring for his near-catatonic mother and his days in a nearby marketplace, telling tales to the crowd with the aid of a magical lute that transforms origami into animated figures. At dusk, Kubo returns to his mother, who feeds him the stories that inspire his own — until her memory abruptly falters, and she lapses back into silence.
These scenes play out with a minimum of exposition — save that required by Kubo's tale-within-a-tale — and a maximum of expression. We read Kubo's whole conflict in the pain that tightens his features as he tends to his mom, in his exhilaration when she briefly returns to herself, in his frustration as she warns him never to step outside at night. We deduce that the mother's story of a brave samurai fighting the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) is actually the story of how Kubo came to be, and that Kubo will soon confront the same enemy. That's how these stories always work. But what we cannot guess, and what we actually care about — because of the groundwork laid in this masterful opening — is whether the boy will ever truly get his mother back.
From this primally resonant opening, Kubo launches into the foreshadowed adventure. When the boy tarries too late outside, he's attacked by his mother's two evil sisters (Rooney Mara), witchlike figures with expressionless masks. Kubo escapes into the wastes and embarks on a quest to reclaim his father's legacy, guided by a fiercely protective monkey (Charlize Theron) and aided by a bumbling samurai who's been transformed into a giant beetle (Matthew McConaughey).
These characters bring banter and much-needed comic relief to the story. Meanwhile, the action set-pieces deliver one visual marvel after another: a battle on a ship constructed entirely of autumn leaves; an undersea world lit by glowing eyes; a confrontation with a giant, flame-eyed skeleton.
As Laika showed with films such as Coraline and ParaNorman, its animators know how to construct images of terror and beauty, the kind that children revisit in their dreams. But Kubo brings something new: underlying themes of mourning and remembrance to which adults may be even more attuned.
From the frenetic questing of the middle section, the film emerges into a finale in which the storyteller's voice does turn out to be more powerful than the sword. Yet there's nothing banal about this affirmation of the human imagination, because it comes with a tacit recognition that stories are our best attempts to compensate for mortality, to replace what can't be replaced. They're the lanterns bobbing in darkness in the traditional lantern-floating ceremony that frames the narrative.
For all its mythic and folkloric motifs, Kubo is ultimately about someone striving to use art to reconstruct a family he never had. While kids will thrill to the film's talking animals, sumptuous landscapes and winsome character designs, adults may find themselves gently weeping as Regina Spektor's cover of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" plays over the end credits.