My Take On… #211: Why Laika Is The Best Studio Out There

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It’s Halloween night and now the question is, what am I going to talk about today that is Halloween related? Well, nothing….I’ve done most of my Halloween themed posts for the month but I’ll do something that’s sort of Halloween related and talk about a studio out there that has been making some of the best movies in recent years, and that studio is Laika:

Laika logo.svg

Laika Entertainment, LLC. is an American stop-motion animation studio specializing in feature films, commercial content for all media, music videos and short films. It is best known for its stop-motion feature films, Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls as well as Kubo and the Two Strings. The studio is owned by Nike co-founder and chairman Phil Knight and is located in Oregon’s Portland metropolitan area. His son, Travis acts as its president and CEO. The company had two divisions, Laika Entertainment for feature films and Laika/house for commercial content. Laika spun off the commercial division in July 2014 to focus on feature film production exclusively. The new independent commercial division is now called HouseSpecial.

Laika was also formerly known as Will Vinton Studios, known for its stop-motion films and commercials, and sought funds for more feature-length films and brought in outside investors, which included Nike, Inc. owner Phil Knight. In 1998, Knight made his initial investment and son Travis started work at the studio as an animator. In 2002, Phil Knight acquired financially struggling Will Vinton Studios to pursue feature-length productions. The following year, Henry Selick, director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, joined the studio as a supervising director. In July 2005, the successor to Will Vinton Studios, Laika, was founded and opened two divisions: Laika Entertainment for feature films and Laika/house for commercial work, such as advertisements and music videos.

The first product they released was Coraline:

Coraline poster.jpg

Coraline is a 2009 American stop-motion animated 3D dark fantasy horror film based on Neil Gaiman’s 2002 novel of the same name. It was produced by Laika and distributed by Focus Features. The film depicts an adventurous girl finding an idealized parallel world behind a secret door in her new home, unaware that the alternate world contains a dark and sinister secret. Written and directed by Henry Selick, the film was made with Gaiman’s approval and cooperation.

Coraline was mostly overlooked in terms of marketing as it was coming out, most people saw that movie as just another kids film and another stop motion film that was more than likely not going to make its’ money back even it was incredible…but the movie was actually much more than most people expected it to be.

The movie ended up becoming a big hit making $75 million domestically and $120 million worldwide on a $60 million budget and the film was a nice fresh return to form for director Henry Selick, who had just come off a huge failure in Monkeybone just eight years prior.

The film was not afraid to be sanitized for kids, this was a legitimate PG rated animated film, like from back in the 80s style PG where you could still do a light hearted kids movie but have darker elements to it, something that a lot of PG films have seriously been missing a lot of nowadays, and this movie gets dark a lot and it’s awesome.

The visual style and the animation is incredible, the blending of the traditional stop motion animation and the CG effects blend together very nicely. The voice work by Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman, and Keith David is excellent, the story works really well, and it knows how to take its’ time and let the visuals and the story be the entertainment on its’ own.

That film was later followed three years later by Paranorman:

ParaNorman poster.jpg

ParaNorman is a 2012 American 3D stop-motion animated comedy horror film produced by Laika, distributed by Focus Features and was released on August 17, 2012. It stars the voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jodelle Ferland, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein and John Goodman. It is the first stop-motion film to use a 3D color printer to create character faces and only the second to be shot in 3D. The film mainly received positive reviews and was a modest box office success, earning $107 million against its budget of $60 million. The film received nominations for the 2012 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and BAFTA Award for Best Animated Film.

In the town of Blithe Hollow, Norman Babcock is a boy who can speak to the dead, but no one besides his eccentric new friend, Neil, believes his ability is real. One day, Norman’s estranged eccentric uncle tells him of an important annual ritual he must take up to protect the town from a curse cast by a witch it condemned centuries ago. Eventually, Norman decides to cooperate, but things don’t go according to plan. Now, a magic storm of the witch threatens Blithe Hollow as the accursed dead rise. Together with unexpected new companions, Norman struggles to save his town, only to discover the horrific truth of the curse. With that insight, Norman must resolve the crisis for good as only he can.

Stop motion films are very hard to criticize because they take a long time to work on, so it’s very rare for them to screw that up unless it’s something in the story area.

Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my favorite movies of all time, despite the unnecessary villian of the film, Corpse Bride is a better film, in terms of a more complete story, and Coraline is a fun and sometimes scary stop motion film.

ParaNorman doesn’t quite fit in that pantheon of stop motion films but it’s still a pretty damn good movie.

The story overall is very creative and unique, the animation is pretty spectacular, and you really like all these characters. Unlike Coraline, which manage to have all that plus some surprisingly effective scary moments, ParaNorman doesn’t have that. There are some creepy moments here and there but overall, it really wasn’t all that scary (but then again, that’s just me).

What makes this movie unique is that it doesn’t play with the regular conceptions of a family friendly movie, there’s a lot of points where it feels like a PG-13 horror movie because there’s swearing, there’s violence and sexual innuendo that’s above what we’re used to seeing in films like these, and one of the characters comes out as gay towards the end of the film. It’s a bold and interesting move on their part and I have to give them credit for that.

My biggest complaint with the film is that we never get a reason behind why Norman sees all these ghosts, it’s never explained in the film and it leads me to believe that if you are a horror movie nut, then you can soon conjure up powers to talk to the dead. I wish we could’ve gotten an explanation to why Norman can see all the ghosts so we can make sense of that. Another complaint I had was that some of the designs on some of the characters were very mishandled, especially Norman’s mom, where parts of her face looks like Quasimido from The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, it looks really bad.

ParaNorman doesn’t quite fit in the pantheon of stop motion films like Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, and Coraline but it’s by no means, a terrible movie. I give the movie credit for being above and beyond the typical family film, especially with some of the stuff they get away with, and it’s an overall enjoyable experience. Does it scream out classic? No, but it’s still a great movie.

Next up was The Boxtrolls:

The Boxtrolls are a community of quirky, mischievous creatures who have lovingly raised an orphaned human boy named Eggs in the amazing cavernous home they’ve built beneath the streets of a city called Cheesebridge. The story is about a young orphaned boy raised by underground cave-dwelling trash collectors who tries to save his friends from an evil exterminator, the town’s villain, Archibald Snatcher. When Snatcher comes up with a plot to get rid of the Boxtrolls. Eggs decides to venture above ground and “into the light,” where he meets and teams up with fabulously feisty Winnie. Together, they devise a daring plan to save The Boxtrolls family. The film is based upon the children’s novel ‘Here Be Monsters’ by Alan Snow.

The Boxtrolls unfortunately doesn’t top Laika’s previous efforts but then again, that doesn’t mean the movie is still a good movie.

It still is, but I think what gives Coraline & Paranorman the edge over the film is that those films managed to not only be great kids films but were able to go above and beyond what we were used to seeing in these modern day kids films.

Here, the general story is very typical and honestly, there are more things you can see coming from a mile away in this film than you can in other films. The name of the villain is obviously gives him away as the villain, the father of the main character “supposedly” dies but then comes back later in the film, there’s a dad who doesn’t want to listen to his child, there’s a scene where the main character has to learn to fit in with normal people, there’s a scene where the main character has to have a fight with one of the other characters and they have to go their separate ways for a bit, there’s a scene where the boxtrolls are “supposedly” dead but they come back in the end to save the day, there’s so many moments like that in the film that we’ve seen done countless times in other films beforehand and coming from a studio that made Coraline & Paranorman, two films that were so different from the norm for most kids films, for them to do that with this film, it’s unfortunate.

That’s pretty much my biggest complaint with The Boxtrolls, it’s a very predictable story.

Now with all that said, the film still has a lot of good elements to it, the boxtrolls themselves are actually very likeable characters and can be very funny when they can be, the main character, Eggs, is a likeable character as well as the other main character, Winnie. Snatcher is a pretty cynical and fun villain but that’s thanks in parts to Ben Kingsley’s performance. His henchmen are a ton of fun to watch, the rest of the characters are also pretty decent.

The story, as general as it is, does have a straight forward three act structure and it’s easy to follow and it does lead to a pretty good conclusion.

The animation is incredible in this, not only do you have great stop motion animation but you also have a great mix of computer animation thrown into scenes with stop motion flawlessly. I can’t recall if Paranorman did some of the same things since it’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen it so don’t quote me on that.

Overall, I did enjoy The Boxtrolls, it’s a fun kids film with great animation, a decent story, very likeable characters and a good heart to it. I always say that there’s never been a really bad stop motion film, except for Monkeybone, and The Boxtrolls definitely doesn’t change my mind on that, worth seeing on the big screen.

The Boxtrolls could also be considered the first time Laika was trying to make a safe and marketable movie and another Despicable Me style hit with the Boxtrolls being too much like the Minions but overall, yeah, I do like the movie.

But the movie that made me realize Laika is the best studio out there is what they did with Kubo & The Two Strings:

File:Kubo and the Two Strings poster.png

Kubo lives a quiet, normal life in a small shoreside village until a spirit from the past turns his life upside down by re-igniting an age-old vendetta. This causes all sorts of havoc as gods and monsters chase Kubo who, in order to survive, must locate a magical suit of armor once worn by his late father, a legendary Samurai warrior.

Laika animation has been on a roll since launching with Coraline in 2009 and continuing that brilliance with Paranorman in 2012 and The Boxtrolls in 2014 (which was just okay), but now with Kubo & The Two Strings, not only do I think that this is the best movie they’ve made but it’s one of the best animated movies I have ever seen.

This movie was just pitch perfect, I loved every single moment of this movie, I thought they did the most perfect job they could’ve with telling this story, a lot of what made Paranorman that great classic movie it was is definitely in this movie.

There’s so many wonderful and amazing elements to talk about here. First off, the animation, which is easily the best and the most complex that Laika has done up to this point. There’s a great little mid credit sequence, similar to the end credit sequence from Paranorman, where they show the animators creating a 12 foot skeleton that was in the film and the fact that they were willing to go that far to create such a creation is pretty damn impressive, it just goes to show the amazing levels of talent that this studio has with them to create such breathtaking animation.

Another great element, the story, what’s so great about this movie is that it plays around with your expectations and it doesn’t take the typical action climax way of ending a movie, it creates a situation where it’s mostly centered around just how a character can just be himself and not have to resort to simple fighting to end the problem. In the end, Kubo makes a choice to not resort to violence but to his stories to come up with a way to defeat his archenemy, his own grandfather, by basically having it be that memories are a much stronger weapon than actual weapons.

The voice acting is spectacular, particularly Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey, who were not only funny and brilliantly voice acted, but the way the movie plays out, they do such a good job of hiding pretty obvious twists that are later to come. Art Parkinson is also really wonderful as Kubo as is Ralph Finnes playing Raiden and especially Rooney Mara as the sisters of Kubo’s mother.

The music by Dario Marianelli is also brilliantly done too, creating these amazing score compositions that stand a pretty solid chance of becoming a classic movie score for years to come. There’s even a really great song in the credits by Regina Spektor.

In what has been a mostly meh kind of summer where you don’t have too many solid movies, this is the best thing that has come out this entire summer. Kubo & The Two Strings is a close contender with Zootopia & Deadpool as my favorite movie of the year, I loved it that much.

The animation is breathtaking, the story is great, the voice acting is amazing, the music is great, everything about this movie just works. We should all be thankful that a studio like Laika exists out there who are making these not only beautiful movies but also profound movies, films that make you think a lot and be enjoyable for both kids and adults, outside of Pixar, this studio has done a fantastic job of creating great animation and Kubo is easily the best one they’ve done so far.

Now why is Laika the best studio today, you may ask? Well, it goes back to Coraline and what has been missing a lot in today’s kids movies, the PG rated ones. Most PG rated kids films nowadays don’t go for the darker stuff and try to get by the PG rating with sole purpose of more adult jokes and nothing else. They do this because many studios are afraid of G rated movies, as I’ve talked about in a previous post, because they’re scared that most adults won’t see a G rated movie but forget that Disney had done that for decades, even Disney themselves had forgotten that recently as most of their animated kids movies nowadays are rated PG.

Back in the 80s, Don Bluth made many G rated films for kids that had darker and heavier elements to them, The Secret Of NIMH, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, hell, Bluth worked on The Fox & The Hound, his last Disney movie before he left the studio, these movies had heavier tones to them but that was back when most studios didn’t talk down to kids as much as they do today. Those movies weren’t afraid to just be kids movies, they just wanted to be movies that could entertain anybody.

Laika has pretty much taken up with Don Bluth in the 1980s left off, making these great kids movies that are not afraid to go for heavier or darker tones to their story and just want to be movies that can entertain everybody from kids to adults and be seriously told stories with edge to them. That’s why I think they are the best studio out there, they very rarely go for marketability and go for telling interesting stories, if they can keep this going with the next films they make in 2018 and 2020, they will end the decade as the best studio of the decade, but as of now, they are the best studio out there today.

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