It’s undeniable that Disney and Pixar are the modern heavyweights of animation, for better or worse. Nevertheless, following several award nominations in categories shared by these behemoths, I feel as though stop-motion studio Laika increasingly deserves more attention and recognition. Perhaps the least talked-about of their films comes in the form of glorious, grimy The Boxtrolls (2014).
My appreciation for Laika began right at the beginning with their debut title: Coraline (2009). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the parallels with The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996) make all the more sense when you realise they share the same director in Henry Selick as well as the charming stop-motion technique. But I’d argue that, while their early links with Selick certainly gave them a strong footing, it is what they have done after using that as a springboard that really shows their potential as a stop-motion powerhouse.
Although not as well known as their rivals Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks or Sony, Laika Entertainment have released some of the most popular and acclaimed animated movies of the new millennium including ParaNorman (2012) & The Missing Link (2019) alongside those already mentioned. My love for their films truly began with Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), which Alex Moore, former Culture Editor on the Courier, has already done a cracking job of covering in an Animation Station last year. After this, I began to look through the rest of their catalogue, which is where we return to the goofy gem that is The Boxtrolls (2014).
The film stars Isaac Hempstead-Wright, (Bran Stark on HBO’s Game of Thrones) as our protagonist, the orphan boy known only as ‘Eggs’ & Elle Fanning (Maleficent (2014), The Neon Demon (2016)) as Eggs first human friend Winnie. Alongside these two are vocal performances from some familiar British faces (well, voices). Comedy pair Simon Pegg & Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007)) and IT Crowd favourite Richard Ayoade lend their voices to the film.
So, what is this strange-sounding film all about? Based on the 2005 young readers novel ‘Here Be Monsters!’ by Alan Snow, The Boxtrolls is set in the pseudo-Victorian town of Cheesebridge, a risible, repugnant Archibald Snatcher can be found in search of acceptance into the high-class elite. Specifically, he wants their cheese, despite being allergic. Brilliantly voiced by Ben Kingsley (Gandhi (1982), Shutter Island (2010)) – who turns everything he touches into gold – this villainous character has one major obstacle throughout the film – he is allergic to his sought-after cheese! It’s safe to say that Kingsley had plenty of fun recording the uncomfortable gurgling that accompanies the gloriously repugnant animations crafted by Laika.
It’s not only Archibald Snatcher that faces a class struggle – the film’s protagonist, Eggs, is orphaned in the opening act and adopted by the boxtrolls, who are also shunned by society: they make for a bittersweet allegory to the homeless. The film is full of grit and harsh realities, but with a quirky, innocent smartness about it all that’s perfect for children and adults alike. This is always what the best family films are made of, and just one more reason why I believe Laika ought to be held in the same high regard as Pixar and co.
Their hard work can be viewed in post-credit snippets following some of their films. A time-lapse of a busy animator’s hands manipulating the models brings the stop motion effect to life while also showing behind the curtain. The camera moves back to show more of the setup and what makes these sequences possible, and it looks as though this usually includes copious use of rigging and armatures attached to character models and sets. The Boxtrolls in particular includes a fourth-wall-breaking gag for this sequence, which is easily more of a treat than any Marvel post-credit scene could ever be.
While Wallace & Gromit serves as an eternal reminder of the legacy of stop motion animation (and increasingly so does the cursed Cheeseposting meme page), I believe it is Laika and their tribute Cheesetowns that are continuing the work initiated by Aardman years before.
Last modified: 29th March 2020