We're fortunate enough to live in an era where animation studios focused on family entertainment are churning out hit after hit full of imaginative worlds and memorable characters. Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios, DreamWorks Animation, Illumination Entertainment, Blue Sky Studios, Warner Animation Group — these names are synonymous with quality, yet all are rather innocuous in their approach. Their heroes are triumphant, a lesson is always learned, there are a few tears shed and even more laughs along the way, and everything works out in the end. There's nothing wrong with that sort of predictability; it's comfort food on film.
But there was a time when movies for children weren't so comfortable. Perhaps it was a sign of the times or maybe it was that PG-13 wasn't instituted until midway through the decade, but throughout the 1980s, kids' movies weren't so concerned with being palatable. Back then, both the animated and live-action adventures of kids in movies were rife with grotesque imagery, curse words, and nightmarish landscapes that we somehow couldn't get enough of. Most importantly, these movies used their imaginative worlds to entertain us while teaching us something about the society we live in.
Despite the ubiquity of bright and shiny characters plastered on the backpacks and lunch boxes of kindergarteners across the world, there is one animation studio that has picked up the mantle of these movies. Laika is the modern-day animation equivalent to what Amblin Entertainment was in the 1980s, marrying wildly entertaining stories and characters with important, heartfelt messages and a touch of danger. Laika has its roots in Will Vinton Studios, a company that helped pioneer claymation in feature films and on television — in fact, it was Vinton that coined the term — and eventually morphed into the company behind four feature films to date: Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and this summer's upcoming Kubo and the Two Strings.
All four of these movies deal with themes that reach far beyond the PG rating they carry and are as comfortable with scaring children as they are making them chuckle and teaching them important lessons to carry through life. Laika has mastered the formula of respecting the surprising maturity of children, being highly entertaining, anti-formulaic, all the while carrying a strong positive message of inclusivity and progress.
Based on the novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman, Coraline is a bizarre fairy tale about an isolated, imaginative young girl that finds solace in an alternate world where her "other" parents care about her more than their work, even if they do wear buttons for eyeballs. It's an unsettling story about growing up and realizing that perhaps your parents aren't perfect but they're the only ones you've got. Still, Laika is sure to add levity courtesy of Coraline's contentious relationship with her neighbor Wybie and the frisky cat voiced by Keith David.
Adapted and directed by The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ Henry Selick, it's no surprise that the imagery is angular and sometimes disturbing. This is the sort of dark fantasy that calls back to movies like Labyrinth wherein children are taught about the consequences of not appreciating what they have — though not without some laughs.
Just like Coraline, ParaNorman is the story of a child that feels like an outsider in his family and peer group, but for a much more distinctive reason: Norman can speak to the dead. He regularly communes with his deceased grandmother and soon stumbles upon an evil curse that puts his entire town in danger.
It's quite a progressive movie too, featuring mainstream animation's first-ever openly gay character, in a move that not only underscores the film's larger thesis on bigotry but also inspires conversations between parents and children about sexuality.
As the world continues to turn, the society that the next generation will be coming to age within is seemingly even further divided by class: the Haves and the Have-Nots. The Boxtrolls is a fantastical interpretation of what this all means for our children, growing up in a world that the generation before them has effectively destroyed.
It's a microcosm of global xenophobia, depicted with a Victorian aesthetic that is both stunning and eerie. Of all of Laika's efforts, The Boxtrolls is, in many ways, their most mature offering. It lacks the blatant kookiness that their other films have, and includes more than a few horrifying scenes. And yet, the kooky designs of the Boxtrolls themselves and the fish-out-of-water humor provides hefty doses of both comedy and tenderness throughout the adventure. In the end it's about celebrating families in all of their different colors and variations.
In what is their most significant departure from formula thus far, Kubo is a Japanese-style folk tale about a little boy with a magical musical instrument fighting for the legacy of his family. It's a movie about the importance of stories and the ties of family — particularly the loss of it — and how children can be resilient through the most trying circumstances with the support of both. Kubo himself is also a new type of hero for Laika. Though he's still clearly an outsider, he appears to be unwaveringly optimistic and joyful, a sense backed up by Laika who says he has more smiling faces than all of their other protagonists combined.
Kubo and the Two Strings appears to be self-aware in its reverence for storytelling, calling back to Laika's early — but strong — legacy in moviemaking and demonstrating explicitly how important stories, and thus films, are to our culture and survival.
While a lot of modern family entertainment tends to sugarcoat the world for children, Laika works to strike an honest balance between the ugly side of things and the beautiful. They consistently display an appreciation for the intelligence of children to comprehend complex ideas, letting them interpret their own lessons from the movies — and engage in side-splitting laughter along the way. Laika understand that in order to better the next generation, we need to show them the shortcomings of the previous ones. This is the theme that unites all of Laika's films in a way that will cement their place as some of the most important animation of the modern era.