Dancing Mice and Moon Gods - A Laika Retrospective
Popular stop motion animation is a curious beast with three major associations: American Christmas specials, cheese-eating Northerners, and gothic style visuals that inevitably gave you nightmares as a child. Laika Studios, associated primarily with the latter category, have been providing us with some of the world's finest stop motion entertainment since they were established in 2005, the different directors at the helm of every film united under the banner of beautifully detailed animation and thoughtful children's entertainment. As their most recent venture Missing Link has recently won a Golden Globe and received an Oscar nomination alongside animation giants like Disney, I'm taking a look back at the filmography of the studio to analyse their unique voice, and determine why exactly their films are so celebrated.
Laika's filmography starts off with a bang: their first film, Coraline, remains their best in the opinion of most, and its direction at the hands of veteran Henry Selick (best known for the gloriously gothic The Nightmare Before Christmas) is hauntingly brilliant. Based on the equally spooky Neil Gaiman book of the same name, Coraline follows the titular girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning) after she has reluctantly moved to a new apartment with her overworked parents - only to find a brighter, seemingly better world on the other side of a tiny door in her house, where the captivating button-eyed Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) waits. But unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold, and as the Other world becomes increasingly sinister, the immature Coraline Jones is forced to grow up and create her own joy.
Though the character and monster designs in this film are wonderful -particularly the Other Mother's unsettling true form - it is the mirrored settings of the grey gloomy real world and the neon tinted Other world that have stuck with me for over a decade since. From the intricate contraptions on Spink and Forcible's stage to the bubbly routines performed by Babinsky's jumping mice, the Other world is as dazzling to the viewer as it is to Coraline herself. But likewise, we too experience the fear of the young girl when the true nature of this impossible realm is uncovered - Laika is a studio that never backs away from scaring children, and Coraline is their most affecting in this regard. Like many others, I have never found the concept of having buttons sewn into my eyes especially appealing, and to be told that a trusted adult might one day hurt you in a horrifically graphic way isn't exactly comforting.
But Coraline survives these terrifying trials and is rewarded with a greater level of appreciation for the dull but ultimately lovely life she already had. In this way, it is closest to a classic fairy tale of any of the whimsical Laika stories, imparting Grimm-like morals through the tried and true method of scaring children so badly they have nightmares for a month. As a true modern children's classic, Coraline kicks off the Laika legacy with an almost unreachable level of quality - but did they ever manage to top it?
Cementing their status as the go-to studio for giving your kids an age-appropriate scare, Laika's sophomore feature ParaNorman again focusses on a child tasked to deal with perils beyond his years. In this case, though, our protagonist Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) hasn't just stumbled into his problems out of boredom; he was born different, with the life long ability to interact with ghosts invisible to everyone else around him. Much like Cole in The Sixth Sense, this grants the misunderstood Norman with a level of empathy and awareness beyond that of his school bullies and parents, who can't understand why he is the way he is. Eventually, though, it falls upon Norman to save them from threats they can't understand, and the result is a story with greater emotional resonance than the goofy title may suggest.
Beyond the content of its plot, ParaNorman contains another similarity toits predecessor: opening with simple, contemporary visuals before unleashing some truly stunning set-pieces. While moments like the opening scene, in which Norman greets his ghost friends on the way to school, are still well constructed, they serve a better purpose in elevating the spectacle that comes later on - contrast Norman's stroll down the sidewalk with his confrontation with Aggie (Jodelle Ferland) later on in the film, for example. Add some late 00s/early 10s zombies to the mix, and you have a fantastically originally kids film that could easily go on a double bill with Laika's first for a great Halloween marathon.
The Boxtrolls (2014)
The strange middle child of Laika's filmography, The Boxtrolls, is the closest to straightforward comedy the studio has ever come, crafting a story about cheese-loving villains and naked trolls rather than the restless undead. The largely British cast, filled with beloved and recognisable comedians like Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Richard Ayoade, brings the film closer to the likes of Wallace and Gromit than Laika had previously ventured, and its perhaps this departure from the usual style and tone that has made this film less of a cult favourite. While it did as well as Laika's previous two ventures at the box office, it's rarely talked about nowadays, save for less favourable references to a character that many deem transphobic.
But there remains much to love about the sweet little oddity that is The Boxtrolls. For one, the elaborate Laika aesthetic is in full force, this time bringing a steampunk interpretation of the Victorian era to life. This same attention is given to the designs of individual boxtrolls, who are all visually charming and alarming in equal measure. The narrative also provides the opportunity for some interesting themes: these creatures are forced to live underground and are slandered by the upper classes as primitive child eaters, when in actuality (as is often the case) those on top are far more uncivilised. As always, Laika don't speak down to their young demographic, and actually tries to impart the message that you shouldn't believe what everyone tells you - even if everyone else does.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
A complete 180 from the whimsical tone and small scale of their previous work, Kubo and the Two Strings is a bona fide adventure epic, with some of the most impressive, awe-inspiring visuals I've ever seen in a film animated or otherwise. To me, Laika is at its best when the narrative of their films lines up with the potential for visual impact - similarly to the dual worlds of Coraline, the plot of Kubo centres around a boy (voiced by Art Parkinson) who can manipulate paper with his magical shamisen, allowing for dazzlingly detailed animation that breaks the boundaries of what you assume stop motion can depict. Moving away from the West, the film is set in Feudal Japan, wholeheartedly embracing this setting with gargantuan mountains, rustic villages, and snow-covered forests. However, the opening shot of the film is the most impressive visual to me, and quite possibly my favourite first image of any film I've ever seen: a wave, resembling Hokusai's, is preparing to crash, leaving you to fear for the woman stranded upon it, and in awe of how on Earth they rendered a model to look so colossal.
If this weren't enough, the themes of Kubo are some of the most challenging I've seen in children's media, striking you on an emotional level you may not expect following the relative lightheartedness of a project like The Boxtrolls. Characters die in this film, and they don't come back. Another, less brave film, might allow for deceased characters to return as ghosts, or even reverse their demise altogether: Kubo has enough respect for the harsh truths of the world not to allow that, informing the audience that while mortality is inevitable, memories and traditions can keep the ones we love alive within us.
Missing Link (2019)
I'll be honest - Laika's most recent film, a simple story about a Sasquatch (Zach Galifanakis) finding his true home, is also their weakest. Sadly leaning away from the depth that made Kubo so brilliant, Missing Link is thematically and narratively slight, mostly relying on humour that doesn't always land. Strangely, in attempting to reach a wider audience with a sillier plot and a more colourful cast of characters, it feels like their least relatable film to date, and I imagine that this is part of the reason why it bombed so terribly, making back only a quarter of its $100 million budget. People enjoy being challenged by the media they consume, and in making a safer movie with more recognisable stars (Galifianakis, Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Emma Thompson et al), they lost part of what made them such a remarkable studio.
But this isn't to say that it is a bad film by any means. The visuals elevate the film far beyond lacklustre narrative, to the extent that it's a genuine shame that more people will likely see the film at home than in theatres. The visual ambition present in Kubo definitely carried over to the subsequent project, with set-pieces like the arctic temple providing emotional catharsis in moments where the story was lacking. And undeniably, Mr. Link himself is irresistibly charming - director Chris Butler was wise in making him a naive, kind-hearted, softly spoken gentle giant, as opposed to the wise-cracking animals and fantasy creatures that so many animated films lean back on.
The difficulty of starting so strongly is that you're likely to end up on a downward slope of quality, even if you're consistently putting out great work. This is the predicament that Laika seems to have found themselves in: a fair way from their former greatness, yet winning Golden Globes with their latest movie (and a BAFTA for Kubo). Perhaps this is in part because Henry Selick left the studio after Coraline, with many of the more recent directors not possessing his level of experience in the craft - this must be the reason that their first film is also, unusually, their most polished. But I still adore every feature they have produced, Kubo being a personal favourite, and I'm eternally grateful that they are continuing the stop-motion tradition in a mainstream way for future generations to see.
Unfortunately, the studio is in some trouble after the losses of Missing Link - I truly hope that they are able to pull themselves out of this financial hole, and carry on crafting their plasticine triumphs.
The Boxtrolls (2014)
Dir: Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable | Cast: ben kingsley, Dee Bradley Baker, Max Mitchell, Steve Blum | Writers: Adam Pava (screenplay), Alan Snow (novel), Anthony Stacchi (story adapted by), Irena Brignull (screenplay), Phil Dale (story adapted by), Vera Brosgol (additional writing)
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Dir: Travis Knight | Cast: Art Parkinson, Brenda Vaccaro, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Charlize Theron | Writers: Chris Butler (screenplay by), Marc Haimes (screenplay by), Marc Haimes (story by), Shannon Tindle (story by)