- The Washington Times - Friday, November 25, 2016

Director Travis Knight’s underappreciated animated film about a musical, magical boy and his thrilling quest through ancient Japan arrives to home theaters in Kubo and the Two Strings (Universal Studios Home Entertainment, Rated PG, 102 minutes, 2.39:1 aspect ratio, $34.98).

Owners will relish watching the fantastic and often forgotten craft of stop-motion animation, from the team that created “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” come to light in this ode to the power of love and memories.

The impactful story finds a sheltered but imaginative, one-eyed youngster named Kubo (Art Parkinson) living with his slowly mentally deteriorating mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron) in a mountain cave above a small town.

Each day, he comes down to entertain villagers with his shamisen (three-stringed guitar) and living origami figures much to the crowd’s, and a viewers’, delight.

Although warned by his mother to never stay out after sundown, he forgets and is attacked by his mother’s witch sisters (a stone-cold Rooney Mara as both) looking to take his other eye.

Sariatu protects her son by magically sending him on a journey to find his missing father’s armor so he can save the village and thwart the plans of his evil grandfather, Raiden the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).

Along the way, he enlists help from a talking monkey and an amnesiac, cursed samurai living as a humanoid beetle name Hanzo (Matthew McConaughey).

The team works together on the treasure hunt and travels through a frozen tundra, bamboo forest and even over and under the high seas to eventually confront a trio of formidable monsters to collect the armor and fulfill Kubo’s mission.

The enchanting sometimes dark and dangerous tale might disturb slightly younger viewers, but it delivers to animation lovers the dynamic duo of filmmaking — a visual stunning design and an emotional story.

The enormous effort from Mr. Knight and his team places “Kubo and the Two Strings” in the category of a masterpiece, and it’s sure to be a repeated family favorite.

High-def in action: Those lucky enough to watch the Blu-ray image upscaled through a 4K UHD television and player are really in for a treat.

However, my kingdom for a full-screen presentation here: I’ll grit my teeth and bear those darn black bars above and below the film, as there is just so much to absorb between them.

Specifically, finely painted parasols, cloth kimonos with varied textures, characters’ capes flowing, a flock of golden heron in flight, a lively origami Samurai made of paper, the tiniest of pock marks on Hanzo’s iron armor, and a full-sized boat magically crafted from an assortment of fall leaves.

Just keep this in mind while watching. Stop animation means an artist meticulously moves every piece in a scene only the tiniest bit for every frame of film to give the illusion of motion. Some days, the artist may spend up to 12 hours just to capture eight frames of film.

You can almost feel the perspiration pouring from the artisans as each of the elements on a character or set location comes to staggering life.

For example, just admire a character’s individual hair strands moving in the wind and remember that each one is slightly altered by hand per every frame.

Throughout, the high-definition presentation delivers every detail down to the ever-evolving wrinkles on Sariatu’s kimono as she walks or talks, or the ferocious movements of a multistory-tall orange skeleton that stop motion legend Ray Harryhausen would appreciate.

Best extras: Mr. Knight offers an enlightening and solo commentary track. He reminds viewers that this is his first commentary and to keep expectations low. However, he quickly makes mockery of that statement with an excellent and near-professorial deconstruction of the film.

Scene by scene, he explains any ties to Japanese culture, the complex story and, most importantly, breaks down many of the practical and digital effects during the stop animation. Much head shaking will occur while listening to such minutiae, as the director explaining how he actually swapped out baby Kubo’s facial expressions using a pair of tweezers for frames of a scene.

Overall, it’s a non-stop fascinating listen that offers a rare view into this really complex and stylized animated film.

Next, a six part, roughly 30-minute-long featurette looks further at this 5-year odyssey to bring the project to the screen, featuring cast and crew interviews.

Segments offer more about the Japanese folklore in Kubo (culture experts were on the set); costume design using historical stitching methods; the musical score; animating water; creating the Garden of Eyes and an 18-foot tall skeleton; and using a 3-D printer to generate most all of the pieces of a translucent, flying centipede.

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