For a studio that’s offered up two Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Feature in the past five years, many viewers still don’t talk about Laika in the same breath as Pixar, or even Dreamworks. You’re familiar with their movies, no doubt; thanks to a distribution deal with Focus Features that started with 2009’s Coraline and continued in 2012 with ParaNorman, the visionary animation studio has offered a kind of family movie that gets released ever less frequently in the new millennium: the genuinely dark, sometimes subversive movie aimed at kids.
It’s not that these movies have been unpopular; both have made decent money for family fare, if well below the mark typically enjoyed by the aforementioned animation juggernauts. A glance at Rotten Tomatoes offers a reminder that the critical appeal of Laika’s work has been overwhelmingly positive, with Coraline hanging at a 90% approval rating and ParaNorman at an 87%. Though both of those Academy Awards ultimately went to Pixar movies (Up and Brave, respectively), there’s an enduring power to both of Laika’s full-length features to date that deserves substantial attention. And it’s not just that their movies are visual feasts, though there isn’t enough space in this feature to delve more fully into the meticulous, often overwhelming details of their output.
In 2003, a struggling ad agency became Laika, separating itself into branches for film development and advertising work alike. They were born from the relatively fresh ashes of Vinson Studios, which once gave America the once-ubiquitous California Raisins commercials. (Remember that weird stop-motion bit in the Christmas-themed Harold & Kumar movie? That was Laika as well.) Their main innovation, even beyond a pair of great films, was to bring stop-motion animation into the new age. Not only did they tap Henry Selick to helm Coraline, who everybody eternally forgets was the actual director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, but their animators had hands in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride a few years before their own features came to fruition.
Laika’s hybrid process often draws more attention than even their films, to the point where the first trailer for this week’s release The Boxtrolls was a teaser that offered a look behind the curtain at the animators and models, alongside a smattering of early footage of the film itself. CEO Travis Knight acknowledged in a recent interview with Wired that their animation is almost antithetical to the modern era, even as it embraces it: “Instead of this thing that’s tried to put us all out of business, the author of our demise, what if we embrace [computer animation]? In that way, it was like a Luddite embracing the loom — a complete community of people who were not really tech savvy, integrating this other community of futurists who are always coming up with new ideas and inventing things.”
By using 3D printers and silicone paints to smooth out some of the traditionally jerky edges of stop-motion and bridge the gap between digital animation and analog clay models, Laika has stumbled upon an almost hyperreal aesthetic. And for Knight’s insistence that “we don’t want to have a house style, in the sense that we want different aesthetic points of view with each of our films,” there’s a definite visual style to Laika’s theatrical offerings so far that is undeniably, definitively theirs. In the same way that critics often decry the replacement of applied makeup effects with CG renderings in recent years, there’s a tactile quality to Laika’s creations that other animation houses have spent no shortage of years attempting to achieve.
It doesn’t hurt that their films are also really, really good. Knight discusses elsewhere in the above interview how Laika’s films touch on things that would appear taboo to most family-based filmmakers, this year’s The LEGO Movie notwithstanding. Setting aside the late-game revelation of a studly main character as gay in ParaNorman, they’ve made family films about a bullied young horror movie geek who appears aggressively crazy to almost everybody around him, and a kid-friendly horror movie about the terrors of losing your parents. These are kids’ movies for a different kind of kid, one able to handle more than sassy anthropomorphic animals running around in brightly colored universes. Like Pixar, Laika understands the intelligence of its audience regardless of age. But Laika trusts it with even more difficult material at times.
On this, Knight notes that “I think we’ve seen a tendency over the last 10-15 years to shave off rough edges, worrying about offending anyone or having anything remotely provocative about the material. I think we’re doing our children a disservice by not being able to show them different kinds of material, that opens them up to different ideas.” It’s not just that their films will leave an indelible impression (it’s hard to imagine the spider-mom sequence in Coraline not causing at least a few nightmares), but that like The Goonies or Gremlins in the ‘80s, Laika is able to tell stories that incidentally teach kids a little more about the world, specifically the less fun and candy-colored parts of it. There’s a gravity and mortality hanging around their films that family movies rarely dare to breach.
It’s curious indeed that a studio whose established aesthetic to date owes so much to Tim Burton’s earlier visions has emerged as a better torch-carrier of his style than even Burton has. Laika fuses style with heart, and despite the lengthy turnaround period between films (Knight has stated that The Boxtrolls has been in some form of development for the better part of a decade now), there’s a quality standard at work for Laika that most other film studios at large would emulate in a perfect world. Rather than making diversions for kids, Laika have made the jump to producing films for kids. They won’t be for all kids, but then, no movie is for everybody. So if you’re late to the party, or haven’t made yourself familiar, then get acquainted with Laika. We need them.