With so many summer movies being franchises, fluff, or bogged down with special effects, it's a nice change of pace to see a movie that's quieter, self-contained, and quite beautiful.  Kubo and the Two Strings is a Japanese folktale from the stop-motion experts from Laika Studios that's both touching and harsh.

The movie opens during a storm, as Sariatu (Charlize Theron) is traveling in a small boat with her baby Kubo.  The journey isn't easy -- Sariatu is thrown out of the boat and hits her head on the ocean floor, while the baby is missing an eye -- but they make it to a cave in a giant mountain.

Years later, Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a young boy who supports by his mother by going into town, telling stories, and playing a guitar that brings sheets of paper to life.  Sariatu has memory lapses and periods of catatonia, but she still tells Kubo stories about his past.  His father, Hanzo, was a samurai whose love was an insult to Saraitu's father the Moon King and Sariatu's evil Sisters.  They killed Hanzo and the Moon King stole Kubo's eye -- and he wants the other one, which is why Kubo must always return home before night.

Of course Kubo winds up in town after dark, which brings the creepy Sisters (voiced by Rooney Mara).  Sariatu sacrifices herself to save Kubo, telling him to find a magic armor, sword, and helmet to protect himself.  Kubo's little figure of a monkey has come to life, and Monkey (also voiced by Charlize Theron) is a humorless guardian of Kubo.  A paper samurai acts as a guide for the pair, and they're joined on their quest by Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a samurai turned into a human-insect hybrid with amnesia but a certainly he served Hanzo.  Together they face a giant skeleton, hypnotic sea monsters, Kubo's truly scary relatives, and revelations (including a twist I saw coming) and loss.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a very impressive movie.  The animation is stunning, from the largest stop-motion puppet ever to the emotional expressions of the characters (and the creepy still faces of the Sisters).  Unlike many other animated movies, this one has genuine loss and tragedy, and it's not magically reversed or changed at the end.  The voice talent is very good, and kids and adults alike will enjoy the bickering between Monkey and Beetle.  Kubo and the Two Strings may be a little scary for really young kids, but it's a delight for fans of both animation and originality.
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

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