Things aren’t looking great for Laika.
Well, scratch that. To be more accurate, things aren’t looking too great for the animation studio in terms of finances. If you look at them solely as a creative endeavour then they’ve never been in a better place. Their latest film Missing Link, the fifth title released under their name, currently has an 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with some critics calling it the best movie they’ve ever made. They have yet to release a film that’s received less than a 76% Tomato ranking, and all four films preceding Missing Link have been nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. Kubo and the Two Strings, which won a Bafta, broke new ground for stop-motion when it became only the second wholly animated movie in history to get an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects. Every new release is heralded with enthusiasm from animation fans, with articles celebrating their work as marking ‘another phase in the evolution of stop-motion animation’. Some have even called them the last great hope for the oft-ignored artform, next to the more homemade and impeccably British delights of Aardman.
All this and yet they struggle to get general audiences to see their films. Missing Link opened at a disappointing ninth place on the past weekend’s domestic box office, the lowest ranking of any of last week’s major releases. That gross of just over $5.8 million from 3,413 theatres was a new low for Laika, a solid $7 million less than Kubo and the Two Strings. Each film has grossed less domestically than the previous one, and none of them were breaking the bank in the first place. Even Sherlock Gnomes managed to break $10 million in its opening weekend.
Animation has spent the past decade in American cinema becoming ever more limited in scope and medium. 2D has been all but killed off in Hollywood, with The Walt Disney Company retiring the form that made them iconic except for guest appearances in films like Mary Poppins Returns, where it remained more a novelty than anything else. 3D is the default mode for the major studios, although Sony Animation broke new ground with their style-blending and kinetic comic book approach for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. However, when we talk about American animated movies, at least the ones that define the medium to the general public, we are primarily focused on 3D. Now and then, a recognizable figure like Tim Burton will dabble in stop-motion, but Laika remain outliers in an industry dominated by big name studios and increasingly limited audience expectations. When animation remains seen mostly as the thing parents take their kids to see for a couple of hours of peace, it feels beyond risky to take the medium seriously and in a manner that defies the mainstream.
Laika was born from Will Vinton Studios, the company founded by the Oscar and Emmy winning animator of the same name, whose work can be seen in Return to Oz and The Adventures of Mark Twain. He sought out investors in the late 1990s in order to make feature length films and found one in the form of Nike founder Phil Knight. He would eventually acquire full control of the company, which Vinton would sue him over, and in 2005 the name was changed to Laika, after the first dog sent into space. As well as stop-motion animation, they invested in CG films, but eventually closed that department to focus on stop-motion full-time. Knight’s son Travis became President and CEO.
Their first creative mainstream boon came in the form of the legendary Henry Selick. Still best known as the guy who actually directed Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, Selick was brought on board to direct a short called Moongirl, but his real passion lay with adapting the Neil Gaiman novel Coraline. He admitted in interviews that the film was ‘a huge risk’, and a technically complex one too. As with most large scale stop-motion films, Coraline required hundreds of thousands of square feet of space for the dozens of sets, as well as skilled craftsmen and printing services to make every single item seen on screen. One crew member was given the job of knitting the miniature clothes worn by the ‘cast’, often using needles as thin as a human hair to get the job done.
There is something about stop-motion that still dazzles us in a way that the photo-realistic intricacies of 3D and CGI does not. We’re now incredibly used to seeing the most detailed and true-to-life animation and effects in every film, to the point where it’s long stopped being special. It can still amaze us, but we take for granted just how much work goes into making a talking panther’s fur look real. With stop-motion, especially work as deliberately intricate and rare in style as Laika’s, we see the work in ways we don’t elsewhere. Aardman are famously committed to ensuring the literal human touch is present in their work, which is why you see every fingerprint on Gromit’s nose, reminding you that someone had to move him that millimeter for the scene to continue. I remember showing my dad a clip from Kubo and the Two Strings and him being genuinely bowled over at discovering it was stop-motion. That’s not to say Laika have ever rejected CGI. Their work embraces that blend in a way that only enhances the natural beauty of their storytelling and increases their already lofty scale to new ambitious heights.
Laika make films of darkness and pain, but they are never bereft of joy or hope. Coraline is a study about the parasitic co-dependency of toxic family life. Paranorman is one of the most succinct and emotionally overwhelming depictions of grief I’ve seen in a kid’s theme in many years. The Boxtrolls is about full-on class warfare, tinged with plenty of Python-esque black humour that makes you wonder how this even got pitched as a kids’ movie. Then there’s Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika’s most positively reviewed film to date, a deeply melancholy tale whose dreamlike tone is hypnotic and full of sophisticated storytelling choices that remind audiences of what it’s like to watch a kids’ film that knows films can be more than babysitting distractions for them. These are stories of misfits, commonly found in children’s entertainment, but while they overcome adversities and find their happy endings, they don’t escape unscathed and the films always let us know that. It’s not that other animation studios don’t do this - Lord knows that Disney has scared the crap out of plenty of us in our time and left us in floods of tears with their keen emotional resonance - but Laika are so committed to their uniqueness that one cannot help but feel genuine sadness that it’s not clicking with audiences.
For all the cries that nothing original gets made anymore, there’s a weary inevitability to seeing Laika’s work be outperformed by Minions and gnomes. I would hate to see Laika be discarded to the Hollywood scrap heap and the art of stop-motion on this scale and style written off in the same manner that 2D animation faced. The company benefits from having a super-rich guy as its Chairman, but the CEO did go off and make a Transformers movie last year, so hopes haven’t been high among animation fans lately. Kids need entertainment that challenges as well as comforts them, that opens up their boundaries beyond the familiar and well marketed. It would be a shame to see something genuinely astounding fall because we don’t give kids enough credit.
Header Image Source: YouTube // Laika