This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Sam Sewell-Peterson.
Missing Link, the fifth film from stop-motion animation house Laika, has just been released. Fans of the studio will know what to expect from a Laika movie walking in: it’ll be bright and energetic and full of delightfully odd and expressively ugly characters. But, it will also probably tackle some pretty big themes along the way, incorporating some macabre and disturbing imagery in doing so. Revisiting Laika’s back-catalogue throws up two particularly prominent recurring themes: death and alienation. Their films tend to approach both in nuanced, mature and non-patronising ways. Importantly, they never talk down to kids.
In Laika’s first feature Coraline, the titular character (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is incredibly bored. After moving house away from all of her friends she finds herself alone in a new town with busy working parents who do not have time to entertain her. Her feelings of constant alienation lead her to despise her parents and seek solace (and a better life) with her “other parents” found through a tunnel in her wall. When the Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) has Coraline completely under her spell, she traps the girl’s real parents to keep her in ‘the other side’ forever. Coraline’s realisation of what her manipulator has done plunges her into a state of grief as her real parents, who she never really appreciated, are, for all intents and purposes, dead. Coraline has to recruit some help in order to defeat the Other Mother in the form of the spirits of three actually dead children, and finally escapes to her own world and her own parents with a new appreciation of how lucky she is to have a family.
Paranorman (2012) tackles the subject of death head-on with the simple conceit that protagonist Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) literally sees and talks to dead people around his neighbourhood. This gift/curse – you guessed it – alienates him from his family and the other pupils at his school. His deceased grandma (Elaine Stritch) is still part of his life, watching bad horror movies with him while the rest of his family have forgotten her and mostly ignore him. You could see Norman’s power as a comment on the grieving process; that everyone else gets over it, over the idea of death, and that Norman can’t or at least hasn’t yet. Alternatively, it could be because he is more comfortable with and used to the idea of death in his everyday life and everyone else has chosen to suppress their true reaction. Before long Norman’s town is plagued by resurrected zombies (typical), but the dead, and death itself, are eventually revealed to be something that is not to be feared. But of course,Norman knew this all along.
Kubo and the Two Strings is an animated film about death (and love, but mostly death). In the film’s opening scene, Kubo’s mother (Charlize Theron) suffers brain damage trying to get her infant son to safety through a violent storm, and aside from fleeting moments of lucidity she undergoes the cruelest kind of death, the death of awareness of her son and their loving relationship. Kubo (Art Parkinson) escapes his daily burdens and makes his living by telling stories acted out by magically animated origami to the inhabitants of his village, but his tales are always broken off before they reach their climax because of family superstitions and by his duties as his mother’s carer. When Kubo’s mother finally departs this world for good, Kubo’s grief takes him on a quest, one of introspection and self-actualisation. You’ll notice his instrument has three strings, the film’s title being a thematic one about Kubo coming to terms with the loss of his parents.
Though Kubo is an original fable, Japanese cultural traditions also play a big part in the story, with a lantern festival (Obon) that allows everyone a chance to remember, respect and commune with their dearly departed. The idea of the transference of life’s energy in the form of family guardians, herons carrying the souls of the dead and ancestors returning to light lanterns all have an eastern inspiration. The film’s main antagonist the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) lives apart from humanity in the heavens and is privileged to never suffer loss. That is until Kubo’s mother, the Moon King’s daughter, decides to stay on earth. That’s his first experience of loss and of grief. Kubo and humankind are stronger than their heavenly manipulators because they experience death every day and they live with it.
Children, sooner or later, have to get used to the idea that they might struggle to belong and that everyone, ultimately, must die. Many adults could learn a thing or two about these essential aspects of existence, and films from Laika are as good a place as any to start.
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