Laika is an American stop-motion animation company named after the first dog in space and founded by shoe company Nike's co-founder Phil Knight and run by his son Travis Knight. Travis was an experienced animator and would animate, produce and even direct the studio's input. This company had its origins in the Will Vinton Studios. This had been founded in 1975 by the Oscar-winning animator1; in the late 1990s the Knights had been investors interested in developing a feature film, taking over the financially struggling studio in 2002 and renaming it in 2005 after Will Vinton sued for ownership of his name.
After establishing their name through the usual route of adverts, music videos and a short 8-minute long film, Moongirl (2005), directed by Henry Selick. They also contributed effects and stop-motion work to other films, particularly Tim Burton's stop-motion film Corpse Bride (2005). Laika really exploded onto the animation scene in 2009 with the highly critically acclaimed Coraline, based on Neil Gaiman's 2002 novel and directed by Henry Selick. Laika's approach uses 3D printers to make their characters' faces.
Every film Laika has made to date has been Oscar-nominated, although none have won an Oscar they have won a BAFTA and Golden Globes. Yet though every film they have made since then has been critically acclaimed, the public have increasingly stayed away and every film has been less and less financially successful, meaning the studio's financial viability has long been in question.
Sight and believing is a key theme in Laika's films, with villains often determined to either steal the gift of sight from others or deny the existence of that which they have seen. Only by truly seeing the potential of others and what is in front of them can key characters save the day and achieve their goals.
Also mentioned is whether the films pass the Bechdel Test. This can be summarised as whether the film involves two or more female characters who have a conversation together that does not focus on men in general or specific male characters.
1. Coraline (2009)
After moving to a new town and a spooky old house divided into flats far away from her friends, Coraline feels neglected by her parents who are busy writing a gardening catalogue. Her neighbours are all elderly bizarre and eccentric except for a strange boy her own age named Wybie, who finds and gives her a doll that looks almost exactly like her.
Soon after Coraline finds a way through a magical door into another world where she meets her Other Mother and Other copies of her father and neighbours who are all magical and loving. She finds the Other world much better than her own and is told by the Other Mother that she can stay in the Other World forever and all she has to do is let her Other Mother sew buttons into her eyes. Is the Other World really as amazing as it seems?
|Setting||Pink Palace, mysterious old house, Oregon and Other World|
This film was based on Neil Gaiman's 2002 novel and directed by Henry Selick, who had directed the acclaimed stop-motion films The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996). The film changed the setting to Oregon where Laika Studios is based and also added the character of Wybie, among other changes, to expand the story to a longer running time. The character of Mr Bobo became Russian Mr Bobinsky. It had originally been intended for the film to be a musical but it became darker in tone during the filming process. Another change was that the characters originally intended to be played by comic duo French and Saunders were swapped, so the character that most resembles Dawn French is played by Jennifer Saunders and vice versa. The Other Mother's true identity is the Beldam, a spider-like witch. Henry Selick's son George Selick plays a ghost.
On release it was the third most successful stop-motion animated film of all time behind only Aardman's Chicken Run (2000) and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) and it remains Laika's most successful film. The film was nominated for Best Animated Feature Oscar, losing to Up. It was the seventh most successful animated film of 20092. In 2014 Time Out Magazine listed it as 96th of the World's Top 100 Animated Films.
2. ParaNorman (2012)
|Directors||Sam Fell & Chris Butler|
|Plot||Norman is a boy who sees and talks to dead people. 300 years after Puritans killed a witch, he learns that her curse will mean her accusers will rise from their graves and overrun the town. Yet no-one is prepared to believe him until the dead emerge, and the townsfolk grab pitchforks and flaming torches. With the undead and a witch on one side, and an angry mob on the other, will Norman be trapped in-between or able to use his powers to finish an ancient ritual and save the town?|
|Setting||Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts, in early 21st Century 300 years after a witch cursed the town|
ParaNorman is a highly enjoyable film, with fans of horror films having plenty of in-jokes and references to spot, including Norman's phone playing the Halloween theme tune. The town of Blithe Hollow is taken from novels Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit (1941) and Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820). Sam Fell is the first director to have directed for both Aardman, having co-directed Flushed Away (2006), and Laika. Mitch makes this the first American animated family film to have an openly gay character and only the second American animated film to do so, following the less than PC South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999). What is disappointing is that the character of Salma, who is the only girl seen to be the same age as Norman, is not given a role.
ParaNorman was Oscar nominated in a year in which two other stop-motion animated films were also, Frankenweenie and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, losing to Pixar's Brave. Though it made a small profit, it was not as successful at the box office as had been hoped, being the ninth most-successful animated film of the year, behind Aardman's The Pirates! in eighth and ahead of Tim Burton Productions and Disney's Frankenweenie in tenth. It had a bigger budget than its rivals and on release became the sixth most-successful stop-motion film of all time.
3. The Boxtrolls (2014)
|Directors||Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi|
Cheesebridge is a town ruled by the White Hats, members of the Cheese Guild who make decisions while sampling cheeses, the head of which is Lord Portley-Rind. Beneath the town, live trolls in cardboard boxes who are called Boxtrolls, and they enjoy scavenging whatever they can find in the town at night. Each Boxtroll's name is taken from what is written or pictured on the outside of the cardboard box they wear. This boy is named Eggs and grows up believing that he too is a Boxtroll until he meets Winifred, Lord Portley-Rind's daughter. Meanwhile, working-class Archibald Snatcher plans to become a white hat and rule the town, and to do this has a plan in which he blames the Boxtrolls for kidnapping and eating a baby and his father, who had been a personal rival. This propaganda is also spread by singing celebrity 'Madame Frou-Frou'. Snatcher uses this as an excuse to set about exterminating them all, while secretly using their building ability to make a gigantic 'Briemoth' killing machine. Who in Cheesebridge is allergic to cheese, will Eggs discover who he really is and can Eggs rescue his boxtroll buddies from Snatcher's schemes?
|Setting||Victorian town of Cheesebridge|
Loosely inspired by Alan Snow's novel Here Be Monsters! (2005), with Cheesebridge based on Trowbridge in Wiltshire. Once again the theme of sight is important as the Boxtrolls hide in plain sight in boxes while no-one sees that Madame Frou-Frou is really Snatcher in disguise. Similarly, Lord Portly-Rind has no time to listen to his daughter Winne, just as both Coraline and Norman's parents did not listen to their children. Conversely Eggs does not initially listen to his father when they are reunited, dismissing him as mad, and so does not see what his father had.
The Boxtrolls was Oscar-nominated, losing to Big Hero 6, which was also the most successful animated film of the year. The Boxtrolls was tenth, making a box office of $109 million from a production budget of $60 million. It overtook The ParaNorman to become the sixth most successful stop-motion animated film of all time. The character of Winnie was played by Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota Fanning the star of Coraline.
4. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
12-year-old one-eyed boy Kubo lives in a cave near a village with his mother, who is losing her memory. He is able to play a shamisen two-stringed instrument and use its music to magically manipulate paper, creating origami people and animals to tell stories. His mother warns him not to be out at night as his grandfather, King of the Moon, will see him. The King, who desires both Kubu's eyes will send his daughters to take his remaining eye.
After staying out at night hoping to speak to the spirit of his deceased father the samurai warrior Hanzo during a festival, Kubo is seen and his aunts come to attack him, destroying the village. Kubo's mother sacrifices her life to save him. Can Kubo, guided by a monkey charm, an origami warrior and a cursed Samurai turned into a beetle, find the lost magical items capable of defending him from his family, the Sword Unbreakable, Breastplate Impenetrable and Helmet Invulnerable?
|Setting||Feudal and magical Japan|
The film was inspired by Japanese art and legends, particularly the giant skeleton, which at 16-foot tall is the largest stop-motion puppet known. This was inspired by Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre woodcut by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, which featured the giant skeletal monster Gashadokuro. It is also the longest entirely stop-motion film.
The Beatles were also a key influence on Kubo's guitar (technically a shamisen) playing, and so a cover of George Harrison song 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' plays over the end credits, sung by Regina Spektor. The film also features a beetle. Like Coraline, Kubo features evil family members trying to steal a child's eye.
The film won the Best Animated Film BAFTA and was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar, losing to Zootropolis aka Zootopia. It did attract legitimate criticism of 'whitewashing' - though set in Japan with Japanese characters, most of the cast were white with the exception of some minor characters. Costing $60 million to make, it made only $78 million at the box office and, as a flop that did not recoup its marketing costs, failed to get near the top ten animated films of the year. It is the 12th highest grossing stop-motion film to date.
5. Missing Link (2019)
Sir Lionel Frost believes in the existence of mythical creatures, but is mocked by members of the Optimates Club aka the Society of Great Men, led by Lord Piggot-Dunceby. After receiving a letter Frost bets Piggot-Dunceby that he can prove the existence of Bigfoot and goes to America's wild west, while his rival, determined to win the bet no matter the cost, hires a mercenary named Stenk to kill him. Frost finds the Sasquatch and learns that he had sent the letter himself as he is the last Bigfoot. He wants Frost to help him find his lost cousins, the Yeti in the lost valley of Shangri-La in the Himalayas. Frost agrees in exchange for being given hair samples etc that would prove he is right and names the Bigfoot Mr Link. The only way they can get to the mythical land is by following a map held by Adelina Fortnight, the widow of Frost's best friend who Frost once loved.
Will Frost, Link and Adelina find their way to Shangri-La?
|Setting||Victorian Britain (Loch Ness and London), United States, the Himalayas|
With a budget of $100 million, this was Laika's most ambitious film to date with the bar fight in particular the most complex stop-motion sequence ever made. Unfortunately the film bombed, making only a quarter of its production back at the box office. This may be because unlike previous films, which were distributed by Universal Pictures and their Focus Features subsidiary, it was distributed by different companies in different countries, which meant it was unable to compete on equal terms with animated films released by the larger film companies able to mass market and distribute their films internationally. Missing Link proved particularly unpopular in the Southern United States where films about evolution tend not to do well. It also was released sandwiched between two other rival animated films with overlapping themes: Warner's Smallfoot (2018) and DreamWorks Animation's Abominable (2019). Both had smaller budgets than Missing Link but were more successful. Nevertheless, it won the 2020 Best Animated Feature Film Golden Globe Award.
This film marks the second time that Matt Lucas and David Walliams had appeared in the same project since falling out following making Come Fly With Me in 2010, having both previously appeared in film The Look of Love (2013) although again they do not share any screen time together3. Overall this is a well-made film with plenty of enjoyable moments that did not deserve to flop. The only real criticism is that, being a Hollywood film, it suffers from having stereotypical British baddies, even in this case including Emma Thompson.
Missing Link was a major box office bomb on an almost unprecedented scale for an independent animated film. Its failure to recoup even a quarter of its production costs, let alone marketing cost also, definitely calls into question what future Laika may have.