If you were starting an animation house with an eye toward the bottom line, you wouldn’t necessarily follow the course that Oregon-based Laika studio has charted in its fledgling years.
Its first feature-length film, Henry Selick’s “Coraline,” took stop-motion animation to a beautifully detailed, magically dark realm, adapting Neil Gaiman’s novella and infusing it with a delightful sense of dread. It was a creepy movie and it wore its ragged cloak proudly, rejecting smooth edges and wholesome, market-driven impulses at every possible turn. Released by Focus Features in 2009, the movie had a long shelf life, grossing $125 million worldwide and earning an Oscar nomination for animated feature.
Three years later, in August, the Laika crew returned with “ParaNorman,” again utilizing a striking, seamless blend of stop-motion, CG and traditional animation to tell another scary story, this time about a young boy and the ghouls only he can see. Aside from the technique, which emphasizes the human touch, and a similarly skewed sensibility, “ParaNorman” shares one other distinction with its celebrated predecessor -- its makers are going to the Oscars.
“It’s huge,” says Laika Chief Executive Officer Travis Knight, talking about “ParaNorman’s” animated feature nomination while in Los Angeles earlier this week on business. “We’re not a multinational media conglomerate. We’re a small animation house based in the Pacific Northwest. To have our first two films get that kind of acclaim makes us incredibly grateful.”
“ParaNorman” remains something of a long shot to win the animation Oscar. Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph” and Pixar’s “Brave” have split the season’s main honors to date, with “Ralph” taking awards from the Producers Guild, the Broadcast Film Critics and the International Animated Film Assn.'s Annie Awards, and “Brave” winning prizes at Britain’s BAFTA, the Golden Globes and the Visual Effects Society.
But for Laika, going two-for-two with the academy adds to a growing sense that it could be building something special up there in Hillsboro, Ore. The company has endured its share of growing pains since Knight’s father, Nike co-founder Phil Knight, acquired the former Will Vinton Studios in 2003 with an eye toward taking the house’s stop-motion animation work into the feature film arena. Laika just announced that its next movie, “The Boxtrolls,” an adaptation of Alan Snow’s best-selling fantasy novel “Here Be Monsters,” will be released in October 2014, again in partnership with Focus Features.
The 2014 “Boxtrolls” release date shortens the window between projects to two years, with the goal, Knight says, of eventually having a movie each year. “Boxtrolls,” which Knight describes as a comedic fable that’s “Dickens by way of Monty Python,” continues Laika’s commitment to offbeat material.
“This kind of storytelling shouldn’t be considered revolutionary because these are the kinds of films we all grew up watching,” Knight, 39, says. “The funny thing is, people don’t remember them that way. If you go back and look at those films, movies like ‘Bambi’ and ‘Pinocchio,’ there are elements that are incredibly dark. Yet no one batted an eye, thinking that kind of entertainment was inappropriate for children.”
Might all the darkness running through Laika’s projects also reflect the studio’s Pacific Northwest roots?
“You could be on to something there,” Knight says, laughing. “We have plenty of time to muse on the gray areas up there.”