FUNNY ANIMALS AND MORE
April 13, 2014 posted by Fred Patten

Fred’s Musings: Laika Studio and “Noah’s Ark”

The Laika Studio – and Their Trend Towards Horror

I have recently seen Laika’s new trailer for The Boxtrolls, due in theaters on September 26, 2014. I enjoyed the stop-motion animation in Laika’s two previous theatrical features; Coraline, released on February 6, 2009, and ParaNorman, on August 17, 2012, and this looks technically excellent. But…

coraline225Based on these three movies, Laika is concentrating on stop-motion animation horror fantasies for the family (children’s) market. Coraline was a good, creepy horror movie, adapted from the 2002 children’s novel by Neil Gaiman. It featured Coraline Jones, an 11-year-old girl threatened by a spider-like witch who poses as Coraline’s “Other Mother”, in an Other World populated by doubles of Coraline’s family, friends, and neighbors with buttons instead of eyes. The macabre comedy ParaNorman was based on an original story by Arianne Sutner and Stephen Stone, as adapted by Chris Butler. Elementary-school student Norman Babcock, also 11 years old, can talk to the Dead. When the small town of Blythe Hollow, Massachusetts is threatened by 300 years’ worth of resurrected dead, Norman finds out what is happening and helps to lay them to rest again.

The Boxtrolls is based on the British 2005 Young Adult fantasy Here Be Monsters! (an adventure involving Magic, Trolls, and other Creatures) by Alan Snow, volume 1 of his The Ratbridge Chronicles. The boxtrolls (they wear human discarded cardboard cartons) live in the Underground, caves beneath the Victorian town of Ratbridge. Arthur (renamed Eggs in the movie), an abandoned young human orphan, has been raised from infancy by them, and now goes along with them on their nighttime forays into Ratbridge to collect the trash that they live upon.

Fine, but Laika has gone from the traditional supernatural horror of Coraline to an emphasis on rotting, falling-apart zombies in ParaNorman, to the underground, dirt-filled world of The Boxtrolls, who think nothing of allowing centipedes to run over their faces, and who have really disgusting table manners. Eggs, the young human boy, has been raised with them to accept their dirt, gross manners, and love of trash as normal, and he displays these in Ratbridge to the humorous disgust of the humans.

paraNormanIs Laika going for the gross-out humor trade? Okay, zombies are popular at the moment, having replaced vampires and werewolves as the monsters du jour. At least the zombies of ParaNorman retain their intelligence and are good conversationalists, instead of the usual shambling, moronic, brains-eating variety. And “ewww – disgusting” gross-out humor has been featured in comedies from Animal House to Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. So Laika is not doing anything overly outrageous. But it does seem as though Laika is committing itself to emphasizing the supernatural equivalent of the juvenile fart joke and pre-2000s European animation’s dogs’ urinating in public (in Scandinavia, it’s seagulls pooping on someone’s head) to ensure its popularity. The “ewww – disgusting” gross-out humor in The Boxtrolls does not appear or is not emphasized in the Here Be Monsters! novel. How long will this work?

Laika has announced its next two stop-motion features: the first: Wildwood, based upon the 2011 Young Adult fantasy novel by Colin Meloy, set in the Impassable Wilderness, a Narnia-like world of talking animals just outside of Portland, Oregon (practically Old Home Week for Laika); the other film announced by Laika: Goblins. No release dates for either have been announced, but Laika’s Laika House commercial division has produced a 56-second traditionally 2D animated trailer for the Wildwood novel. There is no gross-out humor in the novel; no word yet as to whether any will be inserted into the movie. Nothing is known about Goblins yet, but with a title like that, the possibilities for gross-out humor seem obvious.

goblins-550

Laika is a relatively new animation studio with a rather unusual past. It began as, or it is built upon, Will Vinton Productions in Portland, Oregon. Vinton and a partner, Bob Gardiner, made the landmark Oscar-winning “Claymation” film Closed Mondays in Vinton’s garage in 1974. The two separated while making their next clay stop-motion short film, the prize-winning Mountain Music, the next year. Vinton finished it as the first Will Vinton Productions film in 1976. For about the next 25 years, WVP, later renamed Will Vinton Associates, made Claymation theatrical features (The Adventures of Mark Twain, 1985), TV series (The PJs, 1999-2000) TV commercials (The California Raisins, 1986 & following), movie special effects (including Return to Oz, 1985; Captain EO at Disney theme parks, 1986), and more.

In 1998, WVA sought funding for more theatrical features. One of the investors was Phil Knight, the millionaire owner of Portland-based sportswear manufacturer Nike, Inc. In 2002 Knight became WVA’s majority shareholder and took over the financially troubled studio. Over the next three years, Vinton was dismissed from his company and Knight made his son Travis the new president. In July 2005 the studio was reorganized as Laika, LLC.

The major observable difference between Will Vinton Associates and Laika is that WVA was known for its moldable clay figures, while Laika uses metal armature bodies with hundreds of replacement faces. Technically, I like Laika’s poseable-armatures-with-replacement-faces better than WVA’s amorphous clay figures, but I don’t care for the emphasis on gross-out humor. That may be just me, but I can’t help wondering whether Laika’s approach is turning off more people than it is attracting.


The Story Behind “Noah’s Ark”

Had you noticed that, before roughly 2000, practically every European animated feature contained a humorous scene of its talking dog urinating in public, like dogs do? The German 1997 “Die Furchtlosen Vier”/The Fearless Four (a modernization of the Brementown Musicians folk tale), for instance; which Warner Bros. distributed in Europe and is just sitting on a beautiful English dub of? Or if it was a Scandinavian feature, somebody almost surely would have a seagull poop on his head? And then about 2000, these scenes all disappeared? My theory is that before about 2000, none of the European filmmakers really considered that they had a chance of getting American distribution; whereas after 2000, the chances of getting American sales, on DVD if not a theatrical release, have been quite good. This is a shaky theory, since all of the toilet-humor scenes were extremely brief and would be very easy to edit out. But something caused them to all disappear about 2000.

noah-ark-dvdStarting about March 21st or 22nd, my laptop has been frequently getting an illustrated advertisement for Noah’s Ark, a children’s animated movie just released on DVD (March 11) by Shout! Factory, whenever I connect to the Internet. Shout! Factory specializes in DVDs of children’s animation such as the TV series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Pound Puppies, Transformers, and the theatrical Mr. Magoo cartoons.

“All hands, paws, and hooves on deck for an adventure on the most famous boat of all time! Award-winning filmmaker Juan Pablo Buscarini’s Noah’s Ark presents the classic story as a fresh and funny animated retelling that the entire family will love.

Noah is building a whale of a boat in order to save two of every species from a flood that will cover the entire world. Pretty soon, animals are lining up to board the Ark two by two. But as the rain begins to fall outside, it soon becomes clear that living together on a very cramped ship isn’t going to be easy!

Trouble begins to brew when the animals begin to get hungry, a pair of stowaways plot to take over the ship, Dagnino the Tiger wants to replace the irresponsible Lion, Xiro, as king of the beasts and Noah’s own family begins to squabble! One thing’s for sure: it won’t be smooth sailing on this trip. But with a little luck and a little faith, Noah will be able to deliver his floating zoo to safety!” (blurb)

What the advertising does not say is that Noah’s Ark is an English translation of El Arca, a July 5, 2007 Spanish-language animated theatrical feature (original trailer below) produced by the Patagonik Film Group in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a good review: “The family-oriented Spanish-language tale El Arca (The Ark) offers a lyrical, comic, and surprisingly gentle animated take on the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark. God summons Noah to build a giant boat, indicating that he plans to flood the world and wishes to save two of every species. At the Lord’s prompting, the animals appear, in pairs, and board the boat – but little can prepare them (or Noah) for the humorous complications that will result from a few men and women and dozens of animals being confined together aboard one cramped seafaring vessel.”

This is fine for a comedic all-ages theatrical release, but the online advertisement does not distinguish it sufficiently from the direct-to-DVD Biblical home videos specifically designed for young children, or the other DVD animation available on the Shout! Factory label. Apparently you can get away with a lot more in an animated family movie in Latin America – and in France, Italy, Russia, and Spain, where it was also theatrically released — than in the U.S. The American DVD producers must hope that the American parents who buy this just for their children won’t notice. My grandmother, who was religiously very conservative, would have been outraged by this humorously risqué version of part of the Bible.

A nearsighted porcupine humps a pineapple in the first minute of the movie. Noah’s three sons (Japheth, Shem, and Ham), who are blatantly of different races from white to a black stereotype, start out by not believing him when he tells them that God has commanded him to build an Ark (they think he’s become senile), and only humor him while they and their bitchy wives plan to force him into a retirement community. God (who is African) starts the Flood by telling an angel to flush a heavenly toilet. The doves that Noah sends out, with letters inviting the animals aboard the Ark, fly only as far as the nearest animal saloon, where they laugh over drinks at Noah’s naïveté. Only one dove, Pepe, tries to faithfully carry out his mission, and he is an accident-prone oaf who keeps crashing. Prince Xiro, the lion “hero”, starts out looking very effeminate (he hangs out with Bombay, a flamingly gay orangutan beautician), but turns out to be bisexual. Xiro, who mistakes the Ark’s mission for a carefree pleasure cruise, is originally paired with the sexy lioness Bruma, who turns out to be such a cruelly condescending bitch that viewers will cheer when she is killed by the male hippopotamus’ accidentally falling on her while the animals are boarding the Ark. This leaves Xiro with no possible mate except Kairel, his pretty but annoyingly responsible lioness secretary (the “heroine”). Most of the animals on the Ark are obviously having sex with each other offstage – the carnivores with the carnivores and the herbivores with the herbivores. The animals set up a below-deck comedy club, The Dive, where Panthy, an extremely erotic pantheress, does a night club version of I Am Alive called I Want to Live that is almost the equivalent of R-rated. The overly busty Panthy has a hen groupie who tries vainly to imitate her, only calling attention to hens’ lack of bosoms. (Panthers don’t have bosoms either, come to think of it, but that doesn’t stop the anthro fans.)

Naturally all this is ignored in the American commercials. It’s clear in the Latin American theatrical trailer, but that isn’t being shown in the American advertising. There is nothing wrong with any of this for a theatrical audience expecting it. Noah’s Ark is likely to be an unpleasant betrayal to parents used to buying DVDs of original animated Bible tales designed for children, as guaranteed “safe” baby-sitters. I look forward to reading the reviews.

And I am very happy to see the frequent online promotion for foreign animated theatrical features on DVD.

Next week: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in animation.

22 Comments

  • Looks better than the Titanic cartoons, anyway . . .

    • You can give it that. At least the designs look appealing and there’s enough interest for the “older set” to stay tune though I can see how this may backfire in the end. At least we finally got it at all.

  • I missed the detail in “The Boxtrolls” that besides renaming Arthur as Eggs, Ratbridge has become Cheesebridge.

    • You’re making me less likely to go to movies at all, thanks Fred!

  • Yeah, I can see Americans losing their shit over Noah’s Ark thinking its G-rated kiddie fare with a Sunday School message and it’s absolutely the fault of whoever distributed it.

    The actual title is translated to just “The Arc” to distinguish it more as a parody film in Latin America–another thing lost in the Shout! localization.

    Also not sure why you listed the theatrical Mr Magoos as “children’s animation.” I’d think they’d be more boring to kids than adults.

    • Magoo never bored me.

  • Or if it was a Scandinavian feature, somebody almost surely would have a seagull poop on his head?

    I recall that happens in that fine piece of Danish cinematic brilliance known as “Jungledyret” (I believe Miramax left that in their version but I could be wrong).

    Recall we talked about “Little Wansa” a while back with it’s rampant pee moments thrown in. That certainly wouldn’t fly at all over here at all, though at times I wish it did. The movie Balto would be so badass with a urination scene (best we get is Steele blowing his snot on Balto’s muzzle when he was down).

    • I imagine “The Cunning Little Vixen” gets a pass, since the scene where she pisses all over the Badger’s den is in both the original opera and the original novel (and true to the behavior of real foxes), but still, the animated version has her literally pee straight onto his dressing gown. This industry, it’s ridiculous.

      For a lark, I once drew up a sample sequence of storyboards of that part of the opera, recasting it as an anthrophile with a bricolage collection of human objects vs. a vixen who’s had abusive experience with humans. I figured, what would you lose if she simply shed all over his furniture and then offended him out? Why is it always bodily fluids?

  • Yeah, Shout really screwed up here.

    Despite its blemishes I’ve been a fan of El Arca since getting my mitts on the Spanish DVD back in its first release (the movie was co-produced by Buena Vista, and the DVD had a serviceable English-language audio option and English subtitles, even back then), so when I saw Shout’s cut-and-paste family-friendly cover I already knew they were making a terrible, terrible mistake. Outraged fundamentalists have already posted fits on Amazon.

    Observations: (1) If the opening sequence seems confusing, everyone’s acting out each of the Seven Deadly Sins; (2) there is much pre-flood talk of navigational maps, and the luxury-cruiser Ark itself has a helm and control surfaces, all of which is preposterous in a world entirely covered by water (but gives the humans something to conflict over besides meat); (3) the animals have some vague-but-hard rule about not communicating with humans, yet obviously responded to Noah’s written messages (they also inadvertently break this rule around a pair of stowaway humans, with no divine repercussions); (4) of course, dragons, unicorns, and ogres distrust humans and refuse to board the Ark and that’s why they’re not around now. Prerequisite joke.

    Google (or rather Google Images) a little bit, and you will find a few blogs with gorgeous examples of the film’s background art, and if you’re so inclined, you can download four key pieces of the score from composers Andres Goldstein & Daniel Tarrab’s website.

    • “Yeah, Shout really screwed up here.”

      Why can’t it be someone we hate dearly?

      “Despite its blemishes I’ve been a fan of El Arca since getting my mitts on the Spanish DVD back in its first release (the movie was co-produced by Buena Vista, and the DVD had a serviceable English-language audio option and English subtitles, even back then),”

      It was nice a dub got done at all that early as well (no doubt that’s the dub that Shout! Factory acquired as well).

      “so when I saw Shout’s cut-and-paste family-friendly cover I already knew they were making a terrible, terrible mistake. Outraged fundamentalists have already posted fits on Amazon.”

      I blame whomever handled the English version for not titling it “The Ark” as it should have been. Let alone Shout! Factory’s cover is kinda weak with the non-presence of Xiro and his new mate.

      “Observations: (1) If the opening sequence seems confusing, everyone’s acting out each of the Seven Deadly Sins;”

      I figured it out, even if it did seem like a random thing before the story begins with God roaming the merchant streets.

      “(2) there is much pre-flood talk of navigational maps, and the luxury-cruiser Ark itself has a helm and control surfaces, all of which is preposterous in a world entirely covered by water (but gives the humans something to conflict over besides meat);”

      You can tell they needed convenience where the story was concerned there.

      “(3) the animals have some vague-but-hard rule about not communicating with humans, yet obviously responded to Noah’s written messages (they also inadvertently break this rule around a pair of stowaway humans, with no divine repercussions); (4) of course, dragons, unicorns, and ogres distrust humans and refuse to board the Ark and that’s why they’re not around now. Prerequisite joke.”

      There’s a lot of ‘em.

      “Google (or rather Google Images) a little bit, and you will find a few blogs with gorgeous examples of the film’s background art, and if you’re so inclined, you can download four key pieces of the score from composers Andres Goldstein & Daniel Tarrab’s website.”

      Thank goodness for the internet!

    • I blame whomever handled the English version for not titling it “The Ark” as it should have been.

      Well, let’s be completely and brutally honest here: the ONLY reason Shout touched this after so many years was to scratch up a buck riding the coattails of the Russell Crowe movie currently in theaters. It’s not particularly devious or underhanded–like the tactics of Vídeo Brinquedo (Ratatoing and myriad crappy Pixar knockoffs) or TheAsylum’s mockbusters (Transmorphers: Fall of Man, Snakes on a Train, etc.)–but still disappointing.

      They could have avoided the controversy if they hadn’t pushed El Arca as exactly the sort of homogenized non-threatening digital-babysitter pablum that certain parties demand, but they wanted THAT dime, too. Now they have to take the crap that comes with it.

  • I wouldn’t describe what Laika do as ‘gross-out’ humor. They always handle things quite tastefully regardless of what they’re showing.

    I find the banality of the majority of animated features put out by their competitors far more offensive than anything Laika ever did.

    • You have to give them some credit there, even if it seems like they like to stick to these dark tales often.

  • Laika lost me with ParaNorman and though BoxTrolls looks better I too have noticed the trend you speak about Fred. If you include the major stopmo features that have been done since The Nightmare Before Christmas, it seems that stopmo has been pretty much relegated to the “dark” themed stories. The look of them certainly has gotten more macabre. Maybe it’s just me but when I saw the trailers for BoxTrolls I thought, Gee whiz, can’t stopmotion animation be something more than something Tim Burton would do?? Then again, features in general have gotten very dark and dare I say, disturbing?

    • See why I’m often turned off of movies lately?

    • Nothing Laika has done has disturbed me even a fraction as much as cg films like say, Rio, or Hotel Transylvania. There haven’t been many stop-motion features, and as much as the Tim Burton influenced stuff has dominated, there’s also been films like Pirates! and Fantastic Mr Fox.

    • The benefit to stop motion on an industrial scale is the fact that the quirky movement gives charm to subject matter that would, in live action, hand drawn or CGI, be completely horrifying. If “Coraline” was live action, it would be absolutely terrifying, as it already sort of is. They’re using the medium to dump out all the scripts that they don’t want to be too scary.

      And let’s face it, dolls come to life are creepy as hell! I’m not at all surprised Hollywood wants to shove it into the niche, but the niche fits the medium.
      And if I lived in the Pacific Northwest, I’d see very little wrong with these scenarios.

  • I called it correctly about “Noah’s Ark”. I am amused by the outraged complaints on Amazon.com about the “historical inaccuracy” about Noah’s sons refusing to help him build the Ark, the human stowaways on the Ark, the animals having sex outside their species, and so on. Nobody is complaining about the animals talking to each other, or the lion being the crowned King of Beasts. Somebody complained about the movie being so cut, and that he wanted to see what has been cut out. As far as I know, this is the complete Argentine theatrical feature.

    http://www.amazon.com/Noahs-Ark-Various/product-reviews/B00GSTHDG6/ref=cm_cr_dp_see_all_btm?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending

    • They can’t really complain about talking animals, since that would mean disavowing such “quality” entertainment as Once Upon a Stable. (*snaaaaaaark*)

      Reviewing my copy (yeah, I already have the Spanish DVD, but I felt a little sorry for Shout and it’s not like their version sells for much), I can confirm that both editions have the same English audio track (I mentioned elsewhere it was “serviceable,” but I’d highly recommend sticking with the Spanish audio which is VASTLY better-acted and is also available on the Shout edition).

      The Shout edition is, unsurprisingly, barebones–aside from the optional Spanish audio, the controversial cover reverses to a much-preferable “cast portrait” from the original theatrical poster, and that’s it. Shout’s Spanish audio maintains the El Arca title while the English audio presents the Noah’s Ark logo and alternate English-text cuts of Noah’s message, signs (unfortunately, Xiro runs a “suggestion’s” office) and end credits.

      The dual-language Spanish DVD was loaded with extras–voice actor interviews, production clips, trailers and TV spots, the works. I’d recommend that one except for two things–first, the subtitles disappear for about fifteen minutes near the climax, and second…well, it’s out of print.

      The Spanish edition main feature clocks in at 1:28:01, while the Shout edition’s versions clock in at 1:21:40, but I’m fairly confident that this is merely the difference between Spain’s PAL video format versus US-standard NTSC. I doubt I’ll find any cuts, but I’ll compare in depth and if I do find any, I’ll report them here. (Fred, please feel free to e-mail me if you have any questions.)

    • “They can’t really complain about talking animals, since that would mean disavowing such “quality” entertainment as Once Upon a Stable. (*snaaaaaaark*)”

      Don’t forget “The Night The Animals Talked”.

      “Reviewing my copy (yeah, I already have the Spanish DVD, but I felt a little sorry for Shout and it’s not like their version sells for much), I can confirm that both editions have the same English audio track (I mentioned elsewhere it was “serviceable,” but I’d highly recommend sticking with the Spanish audio which is VASTLY better-acted and is also available on the Shout edition).”

      Glad for that then (not like I would’ve wanted a Spanish track, but glad they pulled through there, a release like this would just be popped out without a secondary track in it’s original language for something like this).

      “The Shout edition is, unsurprisingly, barebones–aside from the optional Spanish audio, the controversial cover reverses to a much-preferable “cast portrait” from the original theatrical poster, and that’s it. Shout’s Spanish audio maintains the El Arca title while the English audio presents the Noah’s Ark logo and alternate English-text cuts of Noah’s message, signs (unfortunately, Xiro runs a “suggestion’s” office) and end credits.

      It’s kinda nice when foreign producers go the extra mile to re-film sequences for another language/market that way (of I know Disney has done that for most of it’s films in the past). Not every studio has that extra ability to do so but it does help sometimes.

      “The dual-language Spanish DVD was loaded with extras–voice actor interviews, production clips, trailers and TV spots, the works. I’d recommend that one except for two things–first, the subtitles disappear for about fifteen minutes near the climax, and second…well, it’s out of print.

      Oh well, that can’t be helped I suppose (the disappearing subtitles does sound pretty pathetic really).

      “The Spanish edition main feature clocks in at 1:28:01, while the Shout edition’s versions clock in at 1:21:40, but I’m fairly confident that this is merely the difference between Spain’s PAL video format versus US-standard NTSC.

      It if had been a straight NTSC transfer, the film would be running at a progressive 23.976fps and would go for 1:28:01 if possible. In PAL territories, cinema film has to be run at 25fps in order to adequately match up the video framerate without problems. I wonder if in the end, Shout! Factory received some sort of PAL-to-NTSC master of the film to use that was that way on purpose (essentially sped-up). If they had received it as a 35mm print they would have to transfer on their own, it would certainly be a different matter altogether I suppose.

      “I doubt I’ll find any cuts, but I’ll compare in depth and if I do find any, I’ll report them here. (Fred, please feel free to e-mail me if you have any questions.)

      I’d like to hear of it!

    • Well, as it turns out, the Shout Factory DVD is in fact very heavily edited. I got an entire thirteen minutes into the film before I got disgusted. Here’s what I caught in the interim:

      When Noah releases his pigeons to deliver messages to animals around the world, they immediately abandon their mission and flock to a strip club. The sign outside the club, displaying a bird wearing a coconut bra, is obscured by an early crossfade to God and Angel discussing various religious texts. Returning to the bar, the actual strip-teasing bird with the coconut bra, her aroused mammal patrons, and the nose-picking lizard bartender are all cut.

      Pepe, Noah’s only dutiful pigeon, worries about the thunderclouds building outside. One pigeon mocks his concerns by farting; the scene of another pigeon attempting to fart only to defecate and flee in embarrassment has been cut.

      Pepe, attempting to deliver all the messages himself, tries to fly in Xiro’s window, but Xiro’s outrageously flamboyant (yet monogamously hetero, as it turns out) orangutan masseuse Bombay unknowingly slams the shutter in Pepe’s face. The entire scene introducing Xiro and Bombay, depicting Xiro’s misreading of Noah’s mangled message, has been cut (presumably because of Xiro’s evident pleasure with Bombay’s “extremely lower back” massage).

      …Okay, that scene establishes Xiro’s character and story arc. This is ridiculous. I’m just going to skip ahead to the two most controversial scenes and see if…YEP, Panty’s stage performance of “I Will Survive” is gone in its entirety. NOPE, the giant oozing mound of animal excrement is still there. (Also, the untranslatable “footballers’ challenge dance” before the big fight scene is intact.)

      Chris, if you’re interested in the OOP Spanish DVD (with all its extras) let me know how to contact you. You too, Fred, or any other regulars here. I don’t know if any of you actually has access to my email address as entered in this form, but if you do, it is legit and you are welcome to contact me.

    • Really a shame they went this way with it. Technically there is no way to know who’s e-mail address is posted here, but you need one I could try without leading the spammers on, try sobieniak *at* yahoo *dot* com. That should work. Love to hear from you!

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