We spoke in our last enthralling episode about some of our favourite stop-motion animated films, although the eagle-eared amongst you may have noticed an egregious absence, that of a little Oregon studio named Laika. That was not a snub, but an honour, as we now spend this entire episode covering all of their output.
Laika’s first feature film, after years of doing adverts and contract work, immediately got the studio on my right side, by turning out to be a horror movie that is any good at all. (Yes, this is me, not some sort of pod person replacement.) Not scary, obviously (I have long since given up my quest to find a film that frightens me, assuming them to be as worthy a subject of pursuit as those things featured in Laika’s most recent film, of which more later), but decidedly, genuinely creepy. That it is based on a children’s book (albeit a Neil Gaiman one) is even more remarkable.
Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) has recently moved with her mum and dad (John Hodgman and Teri Hatcher) into the Pink Palace Apartments, a large, old house now subdivided into three smaller homes. As her parents are busy with work for their business, Coraline is left to her own devices, exploring the house and its environs. During this time she encounters the creepy Wybie, the grandson of the owner of the Pink Palace, and her neighbours, the rodent-training Russian eccentric, Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), and the retired, bickering burlesque performers, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (French and Saunders).
Coraline also discovers, or rather is led to discover, a small and curious door in the living room, far too small to have been created for human use. One night she opens this door and finds a tunnel, which she, of course, enters. What kind of a species would we be if we didn’t crawl through creepy, impossible, purple tunnels hidden in our walls? I ask you.
Upon leaving the tunnel, Coraline finds herself in her own house again, yet… it’s not quite her house, nor her own world. Everything is better and brighter, more polished, more colourful, with a nicer garden and tastier food and, most crucially, with better parents, who are funny and attentive and have time for Coraline. Indeed, everything is an idealised version of the real world, with Coraline’s “Other Mother” eager to ensure that everything is perfect for her “daughter”. A little too eager. And there’s something else… oh, yes: all of the people have large buttons in place of their eyes. That’ll make things uncomfortable.
As Coraline spends more time in this fantasy world, witnessing rodent circuses and… interesting… stage shows, she begins to feel the wrongness of it (aided quite a bit by Keith David’s talkative cat), and to fear the hunger and desperation of The Other Mother, in reality The Beldam (from a middle English word associated with witches and fairy folk), who wants to love her in a way that’ll see her end up like Lennie Small’s various pets.
Still, the world is tempting to Coraline, who feels a bit neglected by her real parents, but she does baulk a bit at the cost of membership: all of these riches can be yours, in exchange for your eyes! Look, my manager will kill me if he finds out, but I’ll even throw in these button replacements. Whaddya say?
Just pop out your eyes and let the nice lady put buttons in their place… Like I said, Coraline is creepy. And dark. And strange. And utterly, utterly wonderful. Having shown he could do cartoonish monstrosity in The Nightmare Before Christmas, director Henry Selick shows he can also do unsettling and, well, monstrous, monstrosity, genuine nightmare material. While it doesn’t have the emotional heft of Kubo and the Two Strings, Coraline is thrilling and effective, and a lot of fun, too.
A melancholy score from French composer Bruno Coulais sets a suitably odd, otherworldly tone for the film, much more so than would have done the planned songs from They Might Be Giants (as a huge fan I have some disappointment, but at one song was kept at least, and fits its scene well), and complements the visuals and story well, particularly with its clear debt to European folklore.
And I should probably mention the animation, which is, you’ll not be surprised to hear me say, superb. Starting as they meant to go on, Laika’s sets for Coraline, and the action, are ambitious, striking and wonderfully-realised, with an impressive number of different locations. After the massive success of Coraline the studio would, in the future, be able to attract bigger names, but it was never necessary, with John Hodgman, Keith David, French and Saunders and Ian McShane (more well-known for TV at the time) all being great. If there’s a disappointment in the voice cast it’s Teri Hatcher, who is fine as the mum and the early version of the Other Mother, but doesn’t seem to have the depth to fully sell the more sinister, truer version of the character. But that’s a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent film. But I don’t need to tell you that, because you know, because, obviously, you’ve seen it. Because only a monster wouldn’t have seen it, and you’re not a monster, are you?
It turns out that it’s not just Haley Joel Osment who sees dead people, as young Norman Babcock of the historically witchy-burny Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts also sees, and talks to the dead, most of whom talk back. Particularly his Gran, much to the rest of the family’s disbelief.
A disbelief shared by the whole town, that has seen Norman roundly labelled and bullied as “the weird kid”. To be fair, not entirely inaccurate. He does make one living friend, Neil, although he does seem to be more comfortable talking to the deceased members of town. There may, however, be a great deal more of them there dead people pretty soon, as we head into the 300 year anniversary of the town’s famous witch burning, if we are to believe Norman’s uncle, who says he’s been performing a yearly ritual to keep the witch’s curse at bay, but needs Norman to take over, on account of his imminent death.
Turns out we should indeed have believed him, as the dead rise from their grave, and the skies fill with something that, well, I’m reluctant to commit as to whether it’s a “wibbly thing” or a “swirly thing”. It’s up to Norman and his Scooby-Doo team of Neil, Neil’s elder brother, and Norman’s elder sister Courtney, and the school bully Alvin to work out a way to calm the storm, and, it turns out, the spirit of witch.
At the risk of spoiling this entire episode, there’s not a film we’ll talk about today that I didn’t like, and I very much enjoyed this revisit of ParaNorman. Given that it’s sort of the point of the podcast, I should point out my only real, slight knock against this film, is that the story is a touch on the slight side. It’s more than strong enough to maintain the film, so it’s almost not worth mentioning, but if you are watching this back to back with Coraline you may well find yourself missing the influence of the likes of a Neil Gaiman on the story.
Still, what’s there is very far from bad, and it’s augmented by a number of very funny jokes with great deliveries from the likes of Anna Kendrick, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Casey Affleck, and John Goodman, and there’s a few nice easter egg type gags and references to other horror films for fans of that garbage.
We spoke a little last episode about Aardman having a distinctive style almost to the point of sameness, which is a trap I think Laika do a solid job of avoiding. Needless to say, in common with all of Laika’s work it looks fantastic, and it’s a good jump in complexity and detail between this and their last film. And, at the risk of spoilers, you can pretty much say that about all of their films.
So, yes, a solidly enjoyable film, and even if it perhaps the least weighty of Laika’s outings, it’s a funny watch and well worth revisiting this Halloween.
Another children’s book (Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters!) serves as the basis for Laika’s third feature, The Boxtrolls, which sees the town of Cheesebridge and its coagulated-milk-product-obsessed denizens plagued by an infestation of baby-snatching, underground monsters. These “monsters” are the boxtrolls: shy, harmless creatures who obtain their names from the discarded boxes from which they create clothing. They’re a bit Womble-like, too, though they go a bit beyond simply making good use of the things that the everyday folks leave behind, going with the logic that “it stands to reason that this perfectly good cart wheel on this perfectly good cart will eventually get left behind, so we’ll just take it now since it’s going to happen anyway, and save everyone the trouble”.
That’s their biggest crime though, except for the clearly unforgiveable ones of “being different” and “looking a bit funny”, so it’s a mystery why they have in their midst a human child, Eggs (Game of Thrones’ Isaac Hempstead Wright), that they have raised since a baby, and who doesn’t realise he’s a human.
The answers to this mystery may lie with Archibald Snatcher, (despite everything about the character, and the voice, screaming Timothy Spall, he’s voiced by an unrecognisable Ben Kingsley), the leader of the red hat-wearing boxtroll exterminators, who desires more than anything the right to don one of the white hats of the city’s big cheeses (yes, “big cheeses”: sadly, that’s the level most of this script is operating at), and he’s not going to let a simple thing like violent and disturbing lactose intolerance stop him, nor the inconvenient questions of the mayor’s bratty but curious daughter, Winifred (Elle Fanning).
Said child eventually meets Eggs, and together they discover the fate of the boxtrolls that Snatcher has snatched, and the reasons why he was raised by these timid creatures instead of his father. Neither they, nor we, will discover why Snatcher is also moonlighting as the beloved cabaret entertainer Madame Frou Frou, though, this being a plot point that seems to go nowhere, except to make an almost offhand joke about regretted feelings that, in 2020, feels about as Victorian as the film’s setting.
The whole cheese thing falls completely flat, too: it’s not saying anything interesting or clever, the cheese obsession just seems to be because “it’d a bit weird if everyone was daft about cheese to the exclusion of everything else, wouldn’t it?”, and then allows for a few lame puns. A fromage fixation might have been enough for the inciting incident of the 23 minute long A Grand Day Out, but it can’t carry the weight it’s being asked to in the feature-length The Boxtrolls.
The Boxtrolls is something of a case of style over substance, with neither the story nor the characters being anything like interesting enough. And style it certainly has, along with Laika’s typical disdain for the easy way to do anything: Snatcher’s steampunk vehicle in the finale is large, complex, clearly phenomenally difficult to animate but sadly, here, in service of pretty much nothing. And that’s really the problem: it’s full of pretty much nothing. It is, of course, expertly animated, typically ambitious and visually wonderful, but when your most interesting character is a henchman, and only interesting because it’s voiced by Richard Ayoade, you have a problem. Frankly, it’s boring, and very much Laika’s low point as a feature film studio. Fortunately, things will get better. Oh yes.
Kubo and the Two Strings
We have spoken about Kubo and the Two Strings at some length back at the turn of 2016 in an Intermission episode, then again in the following episode where it was named out film of the year. Spoilers. It also showed up in a clip show episode, so you are forgiven if you want to skip this review. I shall try to keep it brief. Indeed, the briefest form is simply to reiterate that it was our film of the year in 2016 and nothing has happened in the intervening years to make me reconsider that opinion.
Back in feudal Japan, when myths and legends still stalked the land, there lived a one-eyed young boy, Kubo, caring for his ill mother, earning money by storytelling and animating origami with a magical shamisen, but he must return from the village to their homely cave before night falls, lest, as his mother’s stories say, the evil Moon King and his minions find him to claim Kubo’s other eye.
Turns out, however, that the stories his mother tells Kubo belong in the non-fiction section of the library, so when one day Kubo does stay out to take part in a festival, hoping to communicate with the spirit of the father he’s never known, said Moon King and evil minions show up to cause ocular bother for our protagonist. Kubo’s mother uses the last of her magic to spirit Kubo away to temporary safety, along with an animated monkey charm, now an actual monkey, called, er, Monkey, and “Little Hanzo”, an origami figure based on Kubo’s father. They’re soon joined by a reincarnated samurai, sort of, in huge beetle form, called, er, Beetle, who claims to have been one of Hanzo’s, as best as he can remember, which isn’t very well.
Together they must complete Hanzo’s quest for the Sword Unbreakable, Breastplate Impenetrable, and Helmet Invulnerable and go and punch the Moon King in his stupid moon face, and maybe, just maybe, along the way, they’ll all find out more truths about Kubo’s past and his family.
Good gravy, Kubo and the Two Strings is an astonishingly beautiful film. Both visually and narratively, but perhaps we should talk first about the visuals. Of course, as mentioned, all of these films are, but this has a great variety of strikingly lovely character and creature designs, and the scale of some of them is mind-boggling, requiring a mind-boggling amount of work.
The characters are strikingly well realised, both visually and through great vocal performances from the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Rooney Mara, and Ralph Fiennes. The story is in equal parts funny, action-packed, intelligent, epic, and touching. In short, it’s an incredible film, and if you haven’t seen it you are missing out on, well, the best film of 2016. If that’s not enough of a recommendation for you I don’t know what is. Arguably the best quote-unquote kids film that doesn’t have a Studio Ghibli ident at the front of it.
Chris Butler returns to directing duties with Laika’s most recent film as of this recording: Missing Link, an adventure story about the British explorer and cryptozoologist, Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman), and his determination (or perhaps obsession) to be accepted into the Society of Great Men, a gentleman’s club where he is considered a laughing stock. Chief among his detractors is Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), a traditional Victorian adventurer (you know that description is doing a lot of work), an all-round bounder and rotten egg, what.
After yet another blundered expedition, in which Sir Lionel finds the Loch Ness monster but fails to return with even a shred of proof, he discovers a hitherto-overlooked letter, urging him to visit Washington State in the US, and encounter a sasquatch. This he duly does, and finds a, and indeed the only, sasquatch, soon to be known as Mr. Link. Mr. Link turns out to have been the writer of the letter, and contacted Sir Lionel in order to engage his help in finding the home of the yetis, his biological cousins and the only kin he has left.
Sir Lionel agrees, and the two set off for the Himalayas, along with Sir Lionel’s old flame, Adelina Forthright. Things are complicated, though, by their pursuit by a hitman called Willard Stenk. He has been hired by Lord Piggot-Dunceby to ensure that Sir Lionel fails in his quest. It’s quite, quite unthinkable that this missing link can exist, as “we are descended from great men, not great apes”, but best just to be sure. Wouldn’t want any inconvenient or embarrassing truths being proven, what.
Laika have only produced five features , but Missing Link keeps up their impressive hit rate, with their only misstep thus far being The Boxtrolls. It’s a lighter film than what has gone before, both in terms of tone (Coraline) and themes (Kubo and the Two Strings), but there’s still some heart and substance in there, with themes of friendship and independence, amongst others. And while the lighter nature may mean that it’s in some ways a less-satisfying film, it does also mean that it’s Laika’s funniest film to date. Much of that is to do with an inspired piece of voice casting for Mr. Link, as Zach Galifianakis’s style is pitch perfect for the slightly clueless, naïve but not-stupid sasquatch.
Most of the rest of the voices are pretty good, too, and well-cast: Stephen Fry is just the right kind of voice for the pompous villain, and while Jackman isn’t afforded much opportunity to really shine, he’s at least very solid and likeable as Sir Lionel. Even Timothy Olyphant’s Stenk is good (I say this having been often critical of Olyphant in the past), but if there’s a problem then it’s Zoe Saldana as Adelina, the (presumably) Mexican woman who joins Sir Lionel and Mr. Link on their journey. There are many Latin accents with which I am unfamiliar, so I bear in mind I could be very wrong, but to me her accent is pretty awful, and certainly woefully inconsistent, and the reports that her accent took two and a half years to get right leave me considering that two and a half years ill-spent.
Of course, the visuals are king here, and in that regard there is no disappointment, with the animation looking as wonderful, and ambitious, as you might expect. Actually, Laika’s animations and compositions are now so smooth and polished that at times they feel like they’ve lost a bit of the character and jerkiness that gives stop-motion animation its charm. You’re too good, folks, dial it back a bit.
On a slight tangent, I think here might be a good place to mention the post-credit and mid-credit scenes in Laika films, some of the very few such scenes worth sticking around for: Coraline’s dancing mist mice, ParaNorman’s puppet construction, the meta, self-deprecating conversation between Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost’s characters in The Boxtrolls, _Kubo and the Two Strings’ 3m high skeleton torso, and here, another time-lapse showing the animation and composition of the large elephant model as it heads towards the mountains. Putting important story points in your credits deserves a slap; putting scenes that increase your appreciation of the filmmakers’ skills? That deserves a clap.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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