Starring: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes

Director: Travis Knight

101 minutes

During the annual mental and emotional obliteration parents endure through six weeks of desperate summer holiday entertainment hunting for their treasured young ones, film companies let loose their pent-up animated anger on the theatres in their droves. While cowboy reboots and tired rom-com franchises twiddle their thumbs until late September, animated PR execs (unfortunately not actually animated, just frantic) tweet themselves into oblivion in the hope of breaking the summer box office records for their clients and earn a personal jolly to next year’s Cannes. Occasionally, however, a film will sneak in under the radar of broadband tie-ins, themed breakfast cereals and social media uber-bollocks. This year’s prize for the most under advertised, wholly wonderful, broadband unrelated animated movie goes to Travis Knight’s mystical Kubo and the Two Strings.

Set in ancient Japan, Kubo (Parkinson) fascinates local villagers with his magical origami shows, depicting a great warrior Hanzo, Kubo’s deceased father, as he fights against the almighty baddy Moon Lord. Every evening he returns to his fragile mother in the mountains, who slips between abject docility and bright consciousness, when she repeatedly warns Kubo not to stay out after dark. Of course, being the little bugger every young boy is, Kubo accidentally stays out after sundown one evening and almost gets captured by his mother’s evil sisters (Mara) who want to take his remaining eye for their Moon King master. His mother sacrifices herself with her last remaining element of magic and whisks Kubo off to an icy desert, where he awakes to begin his quest to bring down the Moon Lord with the help of a magical monkey (Theron) and a giant fallen warrior in the shape of a beetle (McConaughey).

There is an odd expectancy with traditional animation. Narrative pace and sharp dialogue is not a factor generally associated with the timeless beauty of stop motion, and Charlize Theron’s US inflection initially feels disjointed. Ghibli, for instance, tend towards the softer tones of Kathy Bates or the overtly childish timbre of Daveigh Chase. It’s the same story with the misplaced esoteric reflections of McConaughey’s Beetle, but after a while the preconceptions subside as the film takes its rather unique place at the animation table.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a thing of such visual beauty that it is impossible to blink, let alone look away. Every scene is stunningly awash with glorious shapes, colours and visual transitions, the ancient Japanese sets all the more attractive for their loyalty to tradition. Imagine Mr Maker finding inner peace on Mount Fuji with a bag full of hallucinogens and you’re on the right track. Yet it never flaunts itself; every frame necessary, every backdrop enhancing. Knight enjoys the creative but keeps his eye firmly on the narrative path. Regina Spektor’s oriental tinged orchestral version of While my Guitar Gently Weeps adds a wonderful backdrop to proceedings, ranking up with the best covers of the Harrison classic ever recorded.

Yes, Pixar and Dreamworks are fabulous, but sometimes it is energising to inhale a form of animation that has the blood still fresh on the cutting reel. There’s a moment towards the end of the credits that sits as a timely reminder of just how much time and patience this process takes, and is worth the extra few minutes in your seat. Kubo may not suit the youngest of audiences due to its darker visuals and scarier moments, but it proudly stands alongside the best of the animated films released this year.

8 / 10