The stop-motion studio Laika has perfected, over the past decade or so, its own style of aesthetically acute storytelling: I don't remember much about the plot of Coraline (2009), but I'll never forget its terrifying half-human, half-spider villain, the Other Mother. Kubo and the Two Strings isn't as nightmare-inducing as that, but it's made by people who understand that the border between classic children's stories and horror lies deeper in the neighborhood of horror than we might always assume.
Young Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) lives with his haunted mother on a jagged cliff overlooking a Japanese fishing village. Every day, he goes into town and animates origami soldiers and monsters with the power of his shamisen -- a three-stringed, lute-like instrument. The boy's father Hanzo, we learn, was a legendary warrior who fell in love with Kubo's mother, the daughter of the ruthless Moon King. Mom fled to protect her newborn child from her vindictive family, and as long as the boy doesn't venture out at night they're safe. Well, guess what the kid goes and does.
Most of Kubo follows the boy on a quest to retrieve Hanzo's mythical armor. He's accompanied by the stern Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron), a wood carving come to life, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a former samurai who's been turned into a giant man-insect. Despite the funny animals, there's a unity of style and scale to everything Laika does -- far more so than with the films of Pixar, which for all their elegance slip into extended, indulgent comic bits or wild, slapstick climaxes. Laika is the great formalist of the mainstream animation world.