Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks cast a big shadow, so it's easy to miss fellow American animation shop Laika, the studio founded in 2005 by Nike overlord Phil Knight. Its work, though, has been steadily some of the best in the business this decade. Three Laika films in six years — "Coraline," "The Boxtrolls," and "ParaNorman" — have been nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature (as was 2005's "Corpse Bride"). Just out, "Kubo and the Two Strings," a thorough delight of a film, will be next, and may just earn Laika's first Academy Award. The fable-flavored tale, built from a blend of stop-motion practical effects and computer animation, lives on the screen as a brilliant, mesmerizing achievement in family filmmaking.
The richness emerges from some canny stylistic choices by director Travis Knight (yep, Phil's kid). His work and the script by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler (an animator on previous Laika features) wisely build the story around what the animators can do best — in this case, an ability by Kubo to magically create fantastical origami. The paper looks real enough in stray sheets or folded into samurai and birds and temples, and it blurs the lines between what exists in three dimensions in a studio somewhere and what's merely drawn on a hard drive. The overall effect pulls you into a dreamlike realm that feels eerily tangible, which, along with several fantastic voice performances, shades a world that appears fully formed and deeply immersive.
Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson, a.k.a. Rickon Stark from "Game of Thrones") is a young storyteller and, quite casually, a budding mystic who lives with his mother in a seaside cave at the edge of a village in Japan. He lives knowing that his grandfather, the Moon King, snatched out his eye as a babe, killed his father and cast out his mother and him — and that he cannot dawdle outside till dark, lest the moon find him again. Each day he busks for coins, playing his origami creations to life with his guitar; each night he sprints home to cook and care for his mother, who in her few lucid moments recounts epic tales for him in the same nested, discursive spirit of Scheherazade.
Night does fall on Kubo, eventually, and he has to flee on a quest for three pieces of armor he needs to fight back against the Moon King. His mother out of the picture, he finds himself in the hands of two misfit guardians: Monkey (Charlize Theron, exquisitely), a stern but fierce guide, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey, distinctly), a cursed ex-samurai with a memory like a sieve and the body of a giant bug, like something out of an early draft of "The Tick." All of them are extremely awesome at fighting. This comes in handy when the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and Kubo's aunts (both Rooney Mara) eventually close in.
The persistently surreal settings and characters and gorgeous animation foster a willingness to suspend deeper explanations for the sake of a quick telling. This is not to say "Kubo" rushes; no, if anything, it distinguishes itself by indulging in moments of unforced conversation (over an impromptu sushi dinner on a sailing ship, for instance) that give the story room to breathe, in a style more befitting of literature than of the frantic, antic careening of most cartoons. In ways sweeping and barely perceptible, "Kubo" exists in an emotional world that will swallow you, happily.