We love to discuss animation on this site and I thought it’d be a great idea to delve into one of the most exciting American animation studios and it isn’t Disney. This is all about Laika Film Studio, owned by Nike co-founder Phil Knight. Initially known as Will Vinton Studios before being renamed as Laika in 2005, the studio carried out contract work before diving into exciting features starting with Coraline in 2009. Followed by four more films, Laika has garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Animation Feature for each of its films without a win.
Laika has time and time again grown to become a serious contender in the critical and commercial eye. Using beautiful stopmotion animation with flawless designs and techniques. Their use of textures are particularly brilliant and this can even be seen in their early contract work such as Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and has only grown over the years. Their films are hugely topical with a particular penchant for exploring identity across a spectrum of races and cultures. Laika’s fearlessness has earned its place among the big animation studios and it’ll be great to see what else they have up their sleeves but for now, this post is all about the five features they have released and includes a ranking which won’t be easy. All five films are of such high quality so I’m doing giving myself an easy task at all.
Here are my reviews for the features from Laika:
Laika’s debut comes in the form of fan-favourite, Coraline. Following the titular character, a young girl who has moved home with her parents to a new mansion that has been split up into apartments. Coraline finds an alternative universe known as The Other World where everyone exists with button eyes but appear to be nicer with the house looking brighter than reality. Coraline enjoys spending time with her Other Parents but the facade quickly fades away as all is not as it seems. She has to figure out how to stop her Other Mother from sewing buttons over her eyes and joining them in the Other World which is revealed to be a dark and miserable place. Directed and written by Henry Selick and based on a book by Neil Gaiman, Coraline brought Laika to the spotlight with its unique stopmotion designs and dazzling story-telling. A wonderfully dark film that has appealed to all ages and accumulated a huge fan base, Coraline is a spectacular achievement and a great start for Laika’s legacy.
The follow-up feature released by Laika was the supernatural comedy-horror, ParaNorman. Following Norman Babcock, a young boy who appears normal but has a gift of seeing dead people. This has given Norman a reputation for his weirdness in his town but with the help of his best friend, Neil, he is able to get by. There is a threat from witches who were hunted down centuries before and it’s up to Norman and his gift to save everyone. ParaNorman is an exciting and fresh film, blurring the line between children and adult films. Enjoyable for ages, it isn’t afraid to push taboo subjects and includes the first openly guy character in an animation. It may only be one line and not seem like much, but it had such a huge affect on how filmmakers can approach these topics for children. It was even the first PG rated film to be nominated for the GLAAD Best Film award which is a brilliant step forward and has helped to inspire more discussion in mainstream animation films.
The Boxtrolls (2014)
The third film by Laika comes in the form of The Boxtrolls, a film that follows Eggs, a young boy who is raised by the titular Boxtrolls, creatures who collect and hoard rubbish. It is up to Eggs to save the Boxtrolls when they are threatened by an exterminator. It’s critically known as Laika’s weakest work to date but this is by no means suggesting that it is a terrible film. When faced with films of such high calibre, there will always be a film that falls a little bit short with critics. I am inclined to agree as The Boxtrolls doesn’t have the right balance between silliness and sincerity, often favouring the former which makes for some absurd and overly childish watching. The villains are the best part of the film with Ben Kingsley voice performance as the ridiculous Snatcher an absolute delight but sadly, his character arc doesn’t seem to pay off. The Boxtrolls is a film filled to the brim with creativity and visually it’s great but the script is not as consistent and controlled as it could have been which lets it down slightly.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Kubo and the Two Strings shows just how big Laika can go. Using the same budget as its predecessors, Kubo and the Two Strings follows the titular character on his quest across lands and sea to defeat his aunts and grandfather who are after his one eye after taking the other when he was an infant. Set in Japan and inspired by origami in its animation style as well as the magic Kubo has, the film is beautifully textured and atmospheric. It also features a brilliant cast led by Art Parkinson as Kubo with supporting turns from Charlie Thereon, Matthew McConaughey and Rooney Mara. There is a real rawness to Kubo and the Two Strings that feels unseen and new in that it has such a mature outlook for a children’s film but is engaging and exciting at the same time. The music scored by Dario Marianelli is astonishingly beautiful taking inspiration from traditional Japanese music with heavy use of the shamisen. Deservedly winning the BAFTA for Best Animated Feature in what was a fantastic win, it sadly lost the Oscar which I think it should have won. However, the BAFTA shows that there is a place for Laika and they will get that deserved Oscar.
Missing Link (2019)
The latest Laika feature to be released is the road film, Missing Link. Following Sasquatch, Mr Susan Link, who is accompanied by English explorer, Sir Lionel Frost, to travel to the Himalayas to be reunited with his Yeti relatives. Sadly, Missing Link was a huge box office bomb despite its universal acclaim and award nominations including a win for the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature. What makes it even worse is how amazing Missing Link is. Equipped with a massive $102 million, Laika were able to go bigger and better with this film and brought a star-studded cast led by Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana and Zach Galifianakis. The results are exquisite with the studio taking advantage of the film’s global journey by creating a brilliant scope of flawless sets. The animation department did a stellar job with this, particularly the Washington woodlands were Susan comes from and the Yeti’s home in Shangri-la which are spectacular and jaw-dropping to look at. Hopefully in time, there will be more love for this film because it is such a light-hearted and beautiful feature that is enjoyable for all ages. A really wonderful addition to the Laika filmography.
With all the reviews said and done, I can’t recommend enough that if you haven’t seen these films then you do so immediately and if you have then watch them again because they are phenomenal and beautiful. Laika has proven that there is a place for stopmotion animation in the modern age with each film looking so distinctly unique from the other. Laika’s refusal to adhere to a formulaic method of filmmaking has made it one of the most exciting animation houses in the world and the critical acclaim it receives only adds to the encouragement and push for even more progressive films. I am so excited to see what the future holds for this studio and hope that they recover from the commercial loss of Missing Link because it is a necessary animation house and one that refuses to conform, inviting its audience to think about what they’re watching.
Without further ado, here is my Laika Studio ranking:
1) Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
2) Paranorman (2012)
3) Coraline (2009)
4) Missing Link (2019)
5) The Boxtrolls (2014)
So that’s all the reviews and ranking done and dusted. Not easy as I predicted but it’s always great to appreciate the quality of animation, particularly from a studio where the process takes even longer than usual computer or handdrawn animated films.
What do you think of my ranking? Which Laika film is your favourite? Let me know in the comments below!