In an age dominated by rehashing sequels and preexisting IP, it is quite nice to see a studio separating itself by establishing a precedent of releasing a newly rich and inventive story every few years. Such is the case with Laika Studios, who got their start a decade ago with the widely acclaimed Coraline in 2009. Since then, they have released four more films to near-universal praise, culminating with this year’s sprawling adventure, Missing Link. Despite the unique storytelling, the marvelous stop motion animation on display, and the widespread critical acclaim, Laika’s movies have not fared particularly well at the box office. In fact, their movies have actually seen an exponential decline in their ticket sales over time, coming to a head with Missing Link‘s release this year only netting a potentially debilitating $16.6 million at the U.S. box office, the studios’ lowest gross by far. Each film has made less than the last. In this time of need, we should all be counting our blessings in hopes that Laika will continue to grace our movie theaters with wholly original and inspired films for years to come. We have to do our part: pick up their Blu-rays and even more importantly, spread the word. With any luck, they will put out a new film in a few years and we can support it by flocking to the theater with the enthusiasm that they so clearly put into every frame of their movies. Given their current state of affairs, I wanted to take some time to appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship on display in Laika’s five features, highlighting what sets them apart from their animation counterparts.
It goes without saying that Laika’s animation and art design is revolutionary in both its innovation and creativity. Building off stop motion animation as it was presented in the 90s in movies such as The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996), Laika managed to bring the art form into the 21st Century with updated technology, new implementation of both color and wonder, while keeping the same poignant storytelling that made those pictures so successful. Of course, those weren’t the first examples of stop motion on the screen. The art form gained its first wave of popularity in the 1960s and 70s from Rankin/Bass Productions. The company made some of the most famous televised Christmas specials ever with hits like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and Santa Clause is Comin’ to Town (1970). Fifty years later, Laika kicked off their venture with Henry Selick at the helm, the director of the aforementioned films from the 90s.
Selick based his screenplay for Coraline (2009) off the writing of Neil Gaiman and brought forth much of the dark sensibilities he explored with his earlier work. What resulted was a monumental breakthrough effort from the studio, one that people still refer to a decade later as being perhaps the studio’s most visually inventive and impressive film to date. Dakota Fanning starred as the titular Coraline, while Teri Hatcher provided a stirring voice acting performance as Coraline’s mother, showing a wide range from worn-out working-mom to ruthlessly possessed mom-from-hell (maybe quite literally). The film was a big critical success and did well to put Laika on the map, positioning themselves as a studio to keep an eye on heading into this decade.
Three years later, Laika would put out their anticipated followup with ParaNorman (2012), a rollicking Halloween adventure centered around Norman, a young preteen who can talk to dead people. The movie is significantly more expansive than its predecessor, featuring a hilarious screenplay from Chris Butler that makes great use of scary movie tropes and themes, along with the best aspects of high school movies, and it throws them together to add to the already oddly moving character study at its forefront. ParaNorman constantly thwarts your expectations, modernizing the type of movie it likens to while also staying true to the formula that made them so successful in the first place. This is really one of the ultimate Halloween movies and should be a mainstay on anyone’s October watchlist.
The Boxtrolls in 2014 would see the studio shy away from exploring some of the darker themes in their first two films and in turn feels like a much safer and traditional children’s animated film. That shouldn’t be seen as too much of a negative, however. The film is a very good one of those, most notably containing a fantastic villain, played by veteran character actor Ben Kingsley. He plays Snatcher, a cross-dressing politician hellbent on achieving more power within their small town, seeing the eradication of the boxtrolls as a means to win over the public eye. An odd balance is struck as the villain pretty clearly becomes the star of the film as our protagonist and the girl he wins over are pretty bland and uninteresting. Still, the film remains a fulfilling watch and can be loosely compared to being a fairly conventional Disney animated affair. Again, that’s nothing to sneeze at.
Laika would quickly return to overwhelming audiences with a mesmerizing experience in Kubo and the Two Strings (2016). The film acts as a meta-commentary on fairy tales while also being a completely engrossing one of those. Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey are tremendous in their roles behind Kubo and add a ton of raw emotion. It is beautifully directed by Travis Knight, who would go on to direct Bumblebee (2018) after this and frankly, his absence was sorely missed in its followup at Laika. The story between Kubo, his mother, and father is truly beautiful and by the end of this film, we are fully invested in their story. Couple that with the studio’s most vibrant and ambitious animation to date and you have one hell of an adventure. Kubo and the Two strings is a film that will only grow in its estimation over time.
Lastly, we arrive at Missing Link (2019), Laika’s latest film and its least successful one yet, managing only to gross in its entire theater run what Coraline made in its opening weekend. Missing Link deserved better than that. While it doesn’t achieve the heights of storytelling movies like Kubo and ParaNorman were able to, it succeeds at simply being a thrilling adventure movie. Beyond that, it actually is more expansive than any of their previous films, featuring international exploration a la Indiana Jones or something of the like. Hugh Jackman, Zack Galifinakis and Zoe Salda all do tremendous voice acting work to keep us locked into their characters, while the portrayal of antagonists in this movie leaves something to be desired. As stated earlier, a lesser film from Laika is still a damn fine movie. If all children’s animated fare were up to the standard of Missing Link, the world would be a much better place.
Despite the perceived success of these five critically acclaimed films, we must grapple with the reality of Laika Studio’s position. After five films they have yet to have a box office smash, continually getting pounded by competitors like Pixar/Disney, and Illumination. It’s unclear why they have been unable to capture a wide audience up to this point. Perhaps the marketing and distribution could be a reason, but it must also be questioned if the stop motion art form has a place in the cinema heading into 2020. With big box office numbers leaning heavily towards Disney’s output, it remains to be seen where a small animation studio like Laika can stand. They have already proven themselves creatively and technically. Now, it’s up to us to get out there and make their presence known. Laika now has a handful of movies that should be passed on to children for generations to come. Just like Rankin/Bass before them, Laika’s films are crafted with the meticulousness that will enable them to stand the test of time. With any luck, Laika’s fervor for creating original and groundbreaking artful animation won’t run out any time soon.