Laika got its start as Will Vinton Studios, which was founded by Will Vinton in 1978. Vinton primarily did animation and effects for TV and movies, with only one animated feature under his belt,1985’s The Adventures of Mark Twain.The stop motion film was well received, but has since languished in obscurity. Vinton is best remembered as the creator of The California Raisins, Domino’s Pizza Noid, and the M&M commercials. Vinton’s work, for the most part in commercials, was made in what he coined as “claymation.” Studios like Aardman would later utilize this same animation style. As time wore on, Vinton wanted to do more feature length films, but didn’t have the money for such a venture. In the late 90’s he started accepting investors into his studio, the most prominent being Phil Knight, owner of Nike, Inc. Knight’s son, Travis, began working at the company as an animator shortly after. By 2002, the company was struggling financially and Knight successfully gained complete control from Vinton, who was kicked out of his own studio. Vinton sought damages and sued for the rights to his own name. Thus, Knight changed the name of the studio to Laika, named after the dog sent into space by the Soviets in 1957. Vinton went on to create his own studio again, called Will Vinton’s Freewill Entertainment. Couldn’t come up with something that wasn’t a mouth full? Shortly after Vinton was tossed out, Henry Selick was brought on as a supervising director, showing that the company would not stray from stop-motion.
Their first big project would not be made in house, but for Warner Bros. and Tim Burton. Corpse Bride, in the same vein as Nightmare Before Christmas, was a gothic stop-motion film that was released in 2005. While not as fondly remembered as Nightmare, it is still a solid stop-motion film and a must-see for Burton fans. Like with most stop-motion films, the budget was relatively small ($40 million), and was able to gross a respectable $117.2 million. It would open to mostly positive reviews and would also be nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, but would lose to another stop-motion film, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Their first independent project would be 2009’s Coraline, directed by Henry Selick. Based on the popular dark fantasy children’s novel by Neil Gaiman, the film was a risk for Laika, as they were in financial struggles and as recently as 2008 had laid off a good number of their workers. Selick met Gaiman shortly after he finished reading Coraline and Gaiman, being a fan of Nightmare Before Christmas, offered to have Selick adapt his book. Selick realized quickly that he needed to add a little to the story, namely the character of Wybie. There was a lot of tension leading up to the release, with concerns that if the movie didn’t do well, that they’d be done in animation. Luckily for Laika, Coraline ended up grossing $124 million against a $60 million budget, netting at least a little profit for the studio. Reviews for the film were very good, with most focusing on the amazing visuals. In my opinion, this is the best Laika film. The look, tone, and story are just perfect, and I know that part of that comes from Neil Gaiman. I’m a bit biased because, again, I love spooky stories and I also really like Selick and Gaiman.
Though Coraline was successful, Selick and Laika were not able to renegotiate a contract, so he left in 2009. Laika would continue laying off staff, namely in the CG department, to focus primarily on stop-motion. Their second film, ParaNorman, released in 2012, is another spooky stop-motion film, though wasn’t as successful as Coraline. Critical reception was generally good, with animation being the stand-out and many praising the inclusion of an openly gay character. ParaNorman wasn’t a bust for Laika, as Travis Knight, now serving as President and CEO, considered its totals to be fine, but was disappointed with it nonetheless. ParaNorman was one of those films that I didn’t see until years after. While I enjoy animation, I don’t go out of my way to watch many animated movies these days unless I hear something really good about. I heard how good this was years after and decided to check it out, and I was pleasantly surprised.
Laika’s third, and in my opinion the weakest of their catalogue, was 2014’s The Boxtrolls. The film broke the record for opening weekend for Laika films, but in the end would make a little less than $110 million against a $60 million budget. Not too great, and reviews were right down the middle. I’m sure I would probably like this one better with a second viewing, but it just didn’t blow me away. Animation was excellent, of course, but otherwise I didn’t really like the story. Laika’s latest film was 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings. For me, this is right up there with Coraline. Directed by Travis Knight himself, the film is the closest you’ll get to a stop-motion samurai epic. The film, unfortunately did not do well in theaters, only grossing $74.5 million against a $60 million budget. This is puzzling, as its major competition was Ben-Hur and War Dogs. It seemed to be advertised well, so I guess kids just weren’t clamoring for a japanese-centric movie. While it didn’t do well at the box office, it is one of the highest rated animated films outside of Disney with a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. I imagine that this film will become more popular with age, as many animated films that didn’t do well initially went on to gain cult followings.
Laika, though Kubo didn’t do well, is going strong. In 2015, they announced a plan to expand the studio so they would be able to release a film a year. Their next film is untitled, but will tentatively be released in May of 2018.