Tag Archives: Laika

Coraline

It’s actually nearly impossible for me to believe I haven’t reviewed this one here yet because it’s such a treasure, one that continues to impress me in new ways every time I watch it. Coraline is 10 years old now and it’s safe to say the world of animation has changed in its wake. With Coraline, Laika showed that animated films could be more than just cartoons for kids. With gorgeous, artful sets, thoughtful stories, and dark themes, Laika has distinguished itself as a cut above, and Coraline has set the bar for so much that has come since. They weren’t the first to do this, of course, but they’ve certainly made the biggest impression on American box offices.

I happen to love stop-motion films because it feels like we’re so much closer to the artwork. 24 character puppets were constructed for Coraline, which kept 10 artists busy for four months. The Coraline puppet at one point shows 16 different expressions in a span of 35 seconds. When you stop to think about what that series actually means, the careful minutiae, the attention to detail, the willingness to expend so much work for a few seconds of film, you start to really appreciate the possibilities of stop-motion. Of course, there was no single Coraline puppet, there were 28 made of her alone, in different sizes for different situations. Her face could be detached and replaced as needed. The prototype would be molded by a computer, and then hand-painted by the modeling department. Each jaw replacement was clipped between Coraline’s eyes, resulting in a visible line later digitally removed. There were exactly 207,336 possible face combinations for her character. Just her character! Over 130 sets were built across 52 different stages spanning 183,000 square feet – the largest set ever dedicated to this kind of film.

I like to think about the different people on the set of a movie like this. One person was in charge of making the snow (the recipe calls for both superglue and baking soda, if you’re interested; leaves are made by spraying popcorn pink and cutting it up into little pieces). Someone laid 1,300 square feet of fake fur as a stand-in for grass. Another was hired just to sit and knit the tiny sweaters worn by puppets, using knitting needles as thin as human hair. You have to really LOVE doing this to dedicate your life to knitting in miniature. Students from The Art Institute of Portland had the opportunity to help out – what an amazing induction to a burgeoning industry.

Coraline is an 11 year old girl, recently moved to a new home, and her parents have little time for her. So perhaps she can’t entirely be faulted for falling for a grass-is-greener situation when she finds a secret passageway in the new house and follows it to an alternate universe where her Other Mother is attentive and loving. Of course, all is not as it seems – the Other Mother is trying to keep her there, permanently. It’s dark, but also magical, spell-binding. It absorbs you into this world, which remains in a state of disorienting metamorphosis. The Other World seems inviting at first – utopian, even, to a young girl. But as it unravels, the world looks and feels increasingly hostile; Other Mother herself begins to wear clothing and hairstyles more forbidding and harsh. It reveals itself in a dizzying, undeniable way, the best use of the medium, an unforgettable piece of film.

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Missing Link

Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) is an investigator of myths and monsters but his charismatic exploits have failed to yield any actual proof. There’s a boy’s club of pompous explorers Frost would kill to be a part of, but they won’t have him. In fact, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) would kill to keep him out – and unfortunately, he means that a little more literally than does Frost. Frost feels like his best and last chance is to go to America to find the elusive Sasquatch, and Lord Piggot-Dunceby sends Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant) to make sure he doesn’t.

Frost does indeed meet the Sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis), who turns out to be rather a MV5BNDFmMjlmNjEtN2RhNS00NWNhLWFjODgtN2IxYTY1NzExYWZlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODEwMTc2ODQ@._V1_pathetic figure. The last of his kind, “Mr. Link” is lonely, and hopes Frost will help him find long-lost cousins, Yeti said to live in the Himalayas. With the help of Frost’s friend Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), who hikes the mother fucking Himalayas in heels, they have an adventure worthy of even the greatest explorer, facing adversity bigger than even Big Foot himself.

Laika’s last effort, Kubo and the Two Strings, is an absolutely incredible feat of animation and story-telling. It looks and feels like something truly special, almost magical. Missing Link, while quite charming, is no Kubo. Which is not to say it’s bad, not at all. It’s sweet, actually, and its straight-forward plotting is kid-friendly and accessible. The animation is what we’ve come to expect from over-achieving Laika, and the voice work is first-rate. The film manages to be funny and heart-warming throughout. But it doesn’t have that edge, that sliver of darkness I’ve come to expect from Laika.

Missing Link is a nice movie, a genuinely nice movie, but it’s less sophisticated, less complex than Laika’s usual fare, so for me it fell short of the high bar set by Kubo.

Kubo And The Two Strings

A little dark, and a little melancholy for kids, but for me, near perfection.

Kubo is a little boy with a magical, ancient Japanese banjo. Well, technically the banjo wasn’t ancient at the time – he lives in ancient Japan. And the banjo isn’t actually a banjo, it’s a shamisen. When he plays his magical shamisen, his origami comes to life and helps him tell awesome stories about warriors and samurai. He’s busking, essentially, and the captivated crowd rewards him with a few coins – a good thing because he provides for his sick mother, who lives outside the village in a cave.  When she’s not in a trance, she’s adamant that Kubo always return before sundown. It was surprisingly sound advice from the mentally ill because THE ONE TIME he doesn’t, hell breaks loose. Ancient Japanese hell.

kubo-and-the-two-strings-530x298Turns out, Kubo’s grandfather is some sort of Moon God. Grandfather has already “stolen” one of Kubo’s eyes and wants to get his hands on the other – in blindness, his grandson can join him in immortality, ruling the sky. He sends his 2 creepy daughters to do the dirty work while his 3rd daughter, Kubo’s mom, struggles to protect him with what little magic she has left.

The movie is a grand adventure with more beauty in any random 30 seconds than The Secret Life of Pets has in its entire running time. As usual with Laika productions (they brought you Coraline), there are darker feelings at play, a sometimes ominous and foreboding tone unusual in a children’s movie, and yet the kids in the audience seemed to tolerate it better than they did Pete’s Dragon. It’s a glorious act of story-telling that feels like something genuinely passed down for generations. Every time Kubo picks up his shamisen, be prepared for some of the loveliest music you’ll hear at the movies. It sweeps you up into the magic of his origami, and the whole thing feels alive and vibrant, steeped in a culture filled with divine tradition.

Kubo And The Two Strings is surprisingly well-balanced tonally, able to incorporate gags meant Kubo-and-the-Two-Strings-just for kids between bouts of horror, humour, and yes, tragedy. It’s quite brave, when you think of it. Suicide Squad pulled back on the Joker’s villainy, and Ben-Hur rewrote some of its savagery. This, a meticulously animated piece of art, has the backbone to trust children with some rather heavy themes. And it does it while also being the most visually arresting thing I’ve seen at the movies this year. It’s a spectacle, and a technical triumph. Having no wordly idea how they pulled some scenes off just adds to the magic. Laika is no stranger to Oscar nominations for animation, and is sure to earn another, but this movie demolishes even their own high bar. Laika doesn’t have the cachet of Pixar so politically, beating Finding Dory will be difficult. But the proof is on the big screen: it is undoubtedly the better film.