With their newest feature “Kubo and the Two Strings,” Oregon-based Laika, the studio that made, among other gems, “Coraline” and “The Boxtrolls,” takes a major step up in the field of stop-motion animation (no, this is not a Japanese anime film, as some might think from the poster). Using the Gumby method of shooting one frame at a time with actual physical character models, and creating a hybrid result by fusing that old-fashioned approach with a CGI assist, first-time director Travis Knight (who also runs Laika), along with an army of animators and technicians, has created a stunning visual extravaganza that’s boosted by an original story and a script that’s brimming with heart and humor, along with nods toward the importance of both family and memories.

Opening with a spectacular sequence on a storm-tossed sea in ancient Japan, the film introduces the infant Kubo and his mom, both of whom have made it to shore, and who take up residence together in a big ocean-side cave. Some years fly by, and Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson), now a young lad, is scraping by as a storytelling, lute-playing street busker in a nearby village, while also taking care of his ailing mom in the cave, where she sometimes tells her son about his great warrior father, who died protecting them, but often drifts in and out of reality.

This is a film that’s going to appeal to viewers of every age, partially because it’s funny and exciting and colorful, but also because it carries a deep sense of longing. Additionally, there’s an air of mystery and some really spooky stuff.

The mystery begins with the first glimpse of the black patch over the left eye of Kubo, which is initially hidden by the mop of hair hanging over it. It’s only partially explained: Something to do with a nasty grandfather and mom’s two evil sisters. The spooky stuff soon follows, with a ghostly visit by those sisters, who let Kubo know that his spectral grandfather wants his other eye.

Some compact scripting has Kubo’s mom, in a moment of lucidity, telling him that he must “find the armor” and that “it’s your only chance,” without any explanation. Then it’s all action, mass destruction, and Kubo getting a knock on the head as the sisters wreak havoc, followed by Kubo regaining consciousness in the company of a large white snow monkey named Monkey (Charlize Theron). Monkey claims she has magically come to life after being Kubo’s small wooden monkey toy. Theron, along with the animators and writers, make Monkey rude, demanding, funny, and fiercely protective of him.

This soon becomes a quest movie — don’t forget that armor which, it’s revealed, once belonged to Kubo’s heroic dad, but is now scattered in separate pieces, all over the country. But before Kubo and Monkey get very far, a small red samurai warrior (a prop from his street shows), comes alive to join them. Watch out. They’re being followed. But it’s by friend not foe, and the trio becomes a quartet with the company of a once-great warrior who has had a curse put on him and now has the body of a large beetle with a human head. He is Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a loyal, well-meaning big lug (big bug?) who’s an ace archer and who proves to be the film’s main source of comedy.

That humor is constant, but flat-out creepiness awaits in the shadows, with those sisters reappearing, and eerily floating through the air and speaking without moving their lips, and hideous creatures waiting for the right time to pounce. Back stories on Monkey and Beetle range from moving to tragic, powerful magic permeates the tale, and very dark things happen — some sad, some terrifying.

The ending might challenge parents to explain its meaning to their kids, but this is the best animated film of the year so far, and one of the year’s best all-around movies.

— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.

“Kubo and the Two Strings”
Written By Marc Haimes and Chris Butler; directed by Travis Knight
With voices of Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey, George Takei
Rated PG