‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ – An animated Japanese odyssey free on Kanopy

The animated adventure 'Kubo and the Two Strings' from Laika

In the age of CGI and Pixar’s animation domination, the Oregon-based Laika is keeping the art of stop-motion animation alive in inventive, engaging, and engrossing features filled with textures and details you won’t find in even the greatest Pixar accomplishments. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), the feature directorial debut of animator and Laika president and CEO Travis Knight, is an epic of imagination steeped in Japanese culture and mythology and presented on a scale that is both intimate and expansive. “If you must blink, do it now,” recommends its storyteller, Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), and it is sound advice. You won’t want to miss a second of this dazzling animation.

It opens on two figures in tiny boat on stormy seas, tossed around like driftwood in a hurricane until the mother parts the waves with a commanding strum of her shamisen (a three-stringed instrument that could be a Japanese banjo) and they wash up on a beach where one-eyed infant Kubo is safely delivered. Years later, the adolescent Kubo is the master of the shamisen, telling stories to rapt audiences while colored sheets of paper fly out of his pack and fold themselves into origami figures that play out his tales of a brave samurai. Is it magic, or simply the magic of storytelling? Part of the wonder of Kubo is that it’s both, and that either way, it is astounding.

His stories (inspired by the tales his mother tells of his samurai father, who dies saving their lives) become the blueprint for his quest: to find the objects that will save him from his vengeful aunts (floating witches voiced by Rooney Mara) and his grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who is determined to have Kubo’s other eye. Watching over him are Monkey (Charlize Theron), a toy charm brought to life by the last of mother’s magic, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), an earnest and loyal but easily distracted samurai turned into an insect by magic.

Like the Pixar films it is a storybook odyssey that tells a story of family and courage, but this one is also about loss and sacrifice, and about the power of stories and storytelling. The theater of the mind’s eye his origami figures represent to his human audiences become real when he sends them to battle a rattley skeleton with a pincushion skull or form a ship to sail a muslin sea (CGI flourishes add fluidity and foamy whitecaps to this arts-and-crafts creation), while the imagination of the animators embraces the essential fragility of these creations. A battle with his aunt systematically slices the ship to tatters, a gossamer thing of beauty dismantled by the embodiment of destruction, and every folded paper piece of Kubo’s magic ship has a distinctive texture and weight, just does every fold of a gown, panel of an insect-like wing, and plate in the armor invincible.

I don’t mean to proclaim this superior to CGI but in the era of computer animation there is a joy in the crafted art of stop motion. Kubo and the Two Strings brings that art to a new level while telling a beautiful and touching story that acknowledges its sacrifices and losses as it celebrates its triumphs.

It was nominated for two Academy Awards, in the categories of Animated Feature and Achievement in Visual Effects: a first for an animated film.

Rated PG

Streams free on Kanopy, which is available through most public and college library systems.

Also on DVD and Blu-ray and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, and other services. Availability may vary by service.
Kubo and the Two Strings [DVD]
Kubo and the Two Strings [Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD]
Kubo and the Two Strings [Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + Digital HD]

Don’t miss a single recommendation. Subscribe to the Stream On Demand weekly newsletter (your E-mail address will not be shared) and follow us on Facebook and X (formerly known as Twitter).

Blu-ray and DVD releases feature the six-part documentary “Kubo’s Journey” (it runs just under 30 minutes all together), commentary by filmmaker Travis Knight, and two additional featurettes. The Blu-ray features bonus DVD and Ultraviolet HD copies of the film.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.