★ ★ ★ ★

Rarely does an animated film come along that boasts both stunning visuals and a captivating and wholly original plot. Yet Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest endeavor from animation studio Laika (ParaNorman, Coraline, The Boxtrolls), manages to deliver just that.

The movie’s eponymous main character (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a one-eyed boy who lives in a fantastical version of medieval Japan. Each day, Kubo goes into town to dazzle the villagers with exciting stories in which his father, the legendary samurai Honzu, battles the evil and ancient Moon King. The characters in his tale are represented by seemingly ordinary pieces of paper, which come to life and fold up into enchanted origami figures when he plays his magical musical instrument; this storytelling sequence features nothing less than some of the most beautiful and ambitious animation ever seen on the big screen (stop-motion, self-folding magical origami!).

Kubo’s mom demands that he always return home before dark, and he soon learns the reason why: His mother was once a magical creature not of this world, and she left her family and mystical life behind for Honzu and Kubo. Even more shockingly, the Moon King is her father (and thus, Kubo’s grandfather). Honzu managed to win Kubo his freedom by seemingly defeating the Moon King in a great battle, but the conflict cost him his life and Kubo his eye.

However, the boy’s quiet but happy life is disrupted one evening when he stays out past dark and is visited by evil spirits. Imbued with the last of his mother’s magic, Kubo has no choice but to embark on a long journey to find the mythical armor that will help him defeat these specters. Along the way, he meets some colorful friends in the form of a stern monkey and a large, amnesiac beetle (voiced by Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey, respectively -- both of whom are making their animated-film debuts here).

Kubo’s journey is breathtakingly gorgeous: From perilous deep-sea escapades to harsh winter landscapes to hauntingly beautiful temples, the three-dimensional, stop-motion animation provides a feast for the senses (as does the unique score by Dario Marianelli). Yet it’s only fitting that such imaginative animation accompanies an original story that’s equally heartbreaking and thrilling, as the unforgettable images help make real the film’s themes of loss, loneliness, and the failure to live up to one’s expectations. Meanwhile, Kubo himself faces these trials with the sort of resilience, courage, and creativity that will prove inspirational to parents and children alike. Audiences will appreciate the protagonist’s coming-of-age story and the bonds he forms with his family and new friends, but if there’s one thing holding the movie back, it’s the lack of a more diverse voice cast -- although Theron, McConaughey, and Parkinson do fine work, the story would have benefitted from the authenticity of having more Asian and Asian-American actors lend their vocal talents to the characters. That said, Kubo and the Two Strings is a rich multisensory experience that will open viewers’ eyes to the power of imagination and the beauty of handcrafted animation.