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…
Based 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.
Is 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.
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.
Starting 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.