This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Sam Sewell-Peterson.
FADE IN: A stormy night in Hillsboro, Oregon. It’s 2005 and in the lashing, ever-present rains of America’s Yorkshire, a brand new animation house is born and named after the first, very unfortunate, dog in space.
In the years that have followed, Laika have fascinated and horrified little and big viewers alike with their 5-film-strong collection of striking stop-motion animated features, each of which dip into the fantastical but always stay true to honest emotions.
What follows is a ranking of those five films; some of the most creative and impactful American animated films of all time.
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5. Missing Link (2019)
Even Laika’s weakest film (“weakest link” if you will) is strong by the standards of many other animation studios.
A Victorian explorer goes looking for the legendary Sasquatch to make a name for himself… and he actually finds one. In fact, the one he finds is the last of his kind. But this is only the beginning of Sir Lionel’s (Hugh Jackman) journey, and before long he’s on his way to the Himalayas with his hairy new friend (Zach Galifianakis) looking for some hairy distant relatives.
Missing Link missed the really dark stuff of the other Laika films, and of the few jokes that did land nicely, too many of them felt overly familiar – despite being the first of Laika’s features that follows an all-adult cast of characters, it definitely skews lower tonally. Younger viewers might laugh at Mr Link/Susan being silly and causing chaos with his clumsiness, but there’s very little for adults to chuckle at.
Even so, Missing Link is still arguably Laika’s best-looking adventure; every environment and creature built from scratch, painstakingly manipulated frame-by-frame and teeming with so much detail you’d swear you could walk through the screen to take in the scenery up close.
If Missing Link performs well enough at the box office it could produce Laika’s first sequel. We already see Sir Lionel tussling with the very large Loch Ness Monster in a very small boat in the opening scene; imagine the potential of his further rollicking adventures with Susan the Sasquatch? Imagine if they bring better jokes next time?
4. The Boxtrolls (2014)
This is Laika at its most grotesque (in a good way). Deep below a town grown slothful and decadent on cheese, creatures wearing society’s castoffs live. A human boy known as Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) was lost as a baby, presumed abducted or eaten, but in reality adopted by the actually loving box trolls. Together with rich girl Winnie (Elle Fanning), Eggs and the box trolls must reveal the truth and stop the devious Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) from his campaign of troll genocide.
The character designs in The Boxtrolls are something else, like Regency-era caricatures of politicians, the corrupt and the depraved (same difference) – all bad teeth, cadaverous skin and blemishes of excess. The personalities matching these exaggerated visages are all pantomime, even down to one key character’s tendency to cross-dress, which slightly distastefully is used as a plot twist.
This Laika entry is not really about death (the studio’s go-to subject), rather it’s about how ignorance snowballs, and about being trapped between worlds. Eggs is a “Troll-boy” truly belonging neither among mankind or trollkind, too prone to committing faux pas on the surface and unable to really join in with the diminutive trolls below it (well at least since he put on a teenage growth spurt). It’s a pretty damning criticism of mankind’s baseness and our tendency to go along with anyone who shouts loudly enough as long as our comfort isn’t threatened, even if it’s not exactly (OK not at all) subtle.
3. ParaNorman (2012)
Do not fear death, accept it.
This tale of a witch’s curse which raises the dead and forces a Salem-esque town to reevaluate their priorities has the most unexpected third act diversions and surprise revelations of any Laika feature. Norman (Kodi Smit-Mcphee) is the only one who can see dead people, the only one who doesn’t jump to the conclusion that they’re coming for living flesh, so he has to first convince his friends then his whole town.
ParaNorman was clearly put together by die-hard horror fans; there are references and in-jokes aplenty, especially to shonky 50s B-Movies where the acting was big and the effects budget wasn’t so much. Most is played for laughs, but some genuinely scary imagery and even more disturbing thematic subtext is in there as well, so little ‘uns be warned.
This group of Laika characters is the most fun to spend time with, like the Losers Club from It but with more warmth, or Scooby Doo’s Mystery Inc but less likely to split up at the worst possible time.
I did get Scooby Doo vibes from a lot of ParaNorman actually, except these animators are prepared to push the horror imagery much further and portray humankind as the monsters we are. The animators’ skill at subtly altering the movements and expressions of the living and the undead characters as the story progresses to shift our sympathies is very clever indeed.
2. Coraline (2009)
In the creepiest children’s bedtime story imaginable – one that teaches kids to be careful what they wish for and be grateful for what they have, lest they find themselves trapped in another world with buttons for eyes – Coraline (Dakota Fanning) finds herself bored and friendless in a new town, and only too willing to accept the Other Mother’s (Teri Hatcher) too-good-to-be-true offer of a new life with a new family full of affection and treats.
It takes a unique and singular talent to bring Neil Gaiman’s twisted fantasy worlds to life. Henry Selick, famous for being the guy behind The Nightmare Before Christmas that wasn’t Tim Burton, had just the right macabre sensibilities. Selick has always used colour distinctively in his work and here it’s an essential tool to convey mood.
As the film progresses, the drab, Gothic colour palette of greys and pastels of the real world gives way to a vivid, joyful and warm orange carnival aesthetic of the other world before shifting again to a sickly and oppressive concoction of ice blues, acidic greens and stormy purples as the Other Mother reveals her true purpose.
The way the Other Mother threads her way into Coraline’s mind, luring her in with her deepest desires and showing her true face when it’s far too late for our heroine to turn back is pure, concentrated nightmare fuel. Kids inherently distrust adults – Gaiman knows this and so does Selick, and rapidly this distrust turns to outright, abject terror.
It’s a shame the big awards ceremonies don’t recognise voice-only performances because Hatcher’s controlled vocal menace is certainly up there.
1. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Mature, soulful and textually rich, Kubo and the Two Strings is still Laika’s masterpiece.
Kubo (Art Parkinson) spends day after day telling spellbinding stories to the local village and not finishing them because he has to leave before nightfall to care for his mother. The quest he is set on is, in the end, all about Kubo summoning the bravery to resolve his own story, to move on and grow from grief.
If you’ve ever been to Japan, there’s a lot you might recognise in this world – the routines, the traditions, the respect for everyone and everything. It’s a cyclical film in structure and relies on much repetition and rhyming thematic moments.
Speaking of repeated motifs, music also plays a big part in this tale, from Kubo using his magical three-stringed shamisen to power his stories (and later as a weapon), to the hidden meaning of the film’s musical title, to using a bachi plectrum strum to signify key moments of change in the story. This feels like an ancient Japanese fable despite being an original creation, and it has much wisdom to impart.
Kubo and the Two Strings is essentially a road movie. And, like all road movies, the destination isn’t what counts, it’s what you do, what you become, and what you realise about yourself in your efforts to get there that does. Kubo’s fellow questers Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) represent different aspects of his personality, both his strengths and his weaknesses, as well as what he is trying to overcome.
No wonder director Travis Knight was given the chair for big-money franchise starter Bumblebee on the back of this – what he can do with unconventional humanoids, whether anthropomorphic robot, beetle or monkey, all conveying heart-wrenching emotion that truly is without equal.
Agree with my ranking? Disagree? What’s your favourite film from Laika? Let me know in the comments!
Written by Sam Sewell-Peterson
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