Since 2005, Laika has been the leading force of stop-motion animation in Hollywood. An Oscar “Best Animated Feature” lineup is never complete without Laika’s staple presence. The award-winning studio is celebrating its sixth release this weekend, Chris Butler’s “Missing Link.” To honor the latest entry in the underrated animation studio’s collection, here is the complete ranking of the fabulous five films that Laika has lovingly graced upon audiences.
5“The Boxtrolls” (2014)
dir. Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi
While hardly a weak effort by Laika, this whimsical feature is a classic conflict between the “Haves” and the “Have Nots.” In order to vilify the Boxtrolls – harmless creatures who dwell beneath the city and come up to scavenge – the Cheesebridge townsfolk disguise propaganda as tradition, hosting parades and feasts as a reminder of the Boxtrolls’ threatening monstrosity. The haughty indignation and cruelty of upper-class Victorian society aren’t that different from its depiction in “Corpse Bride,” except flimsier characterization. The movie lacks memorability thanks to its reliance on the Boxtrolls’ cuteness factor; even such strong marketing value couldn’t help find this lesser yet prized gem a grander audience.
dir. Chris Butler, Sam Fell
What “ParaNorman’s” narrative lacks in originality it compensates for with progressive themes and landmark representation. A zombie infestation, a tale of a vengeful “witch,” and a kid who can see the dead despite his town’s disbelief might seem like a derivative children’s fable. However, Sam Fell and Chris Butler’s deconstruction of horror tropes and unforgiving spirits twist ancient convention into newfound exhilaration. The pinnacle of social progress takes the form of a twist ending: a jock who announces he has a boyfriend, making the aforementioned Mitch the first openly gay character in an animated movie.
dir. Henry Selick
Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s award-winning children’s novella stays true to its darkly inquisitive form. A twisted fantasy that visits alternate realms where seeming utopia is actually the stuff of nightmares, “Coraline” takes imagination a step further than most animated forays into darkness. In many respects, the movie’s biggest strength is its maturity to confront fears governing childhood and its dichotomy with parenthood. Not since Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” has one little girl’s journey into the depths of the fantastical unknown has had such a profound effect on viewers. The film demonstrates that the fearlessness of children often unveils threats closer to home than most adults care to examine.
2“Corpse Bride” (2005)
dir. Tim Burton, Mike Johnson
Just below the top spot on account of operating smaller in scale, Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride” remains his only shining work of the 21st century. Unlike most Johnny Depp protagonists, Victor never steamrolls the giant roster of characters for sole attention. He’s a meek suitor caught in a dilemma of heart, soul, and societal obligation yet treats both living and undead with utmost respect and sensitivity. The stop-motion animation stuns even by today’s standards, proving to be the ideal technique for Burton’s macabre amusement. Subverting the love triangle trope by dignifying the respective plights of Emily and Victoria, “Corpse Bride” proves to be an ardent supporter of women asserting agency despite the inherent sexism that exists in the matrimonial process.
1“Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016)
dir. Travis Knight
This stunningly gorgeous adventure story set in feudal Japan is the closest cinema has ever come to simulating the popular “Legend of Zelda” video games. From its layered mythology to its band of characters that become a supportive party for its title hero, the epic nature of Kubo’s quest transcends its own medium. Whitewashed vocal cast notwithstanding, the profoundness in Kubo’s tale is how it perfectly meshes the cultural with the personal, prizing family above all else even when they can cause the most devastation.
Also rare is how visuals are used to enhance the depth of experience instead of merely coat the mise-en-scene with glossy allure. The breathtaking effects work resulted in the second stop-motion animated feature to ever garner a “Best Visual Effects” Oscar-nomination (“The Nightmare Before Christmas” was the first).