LAIKA on the verge: Unpacking “The BoxTrolls” trailer

New cohesion, old-world setting, steam punk style fetish, and blasé about gays.

The BoxTrolls trailer lets its orphaned hero try all the possible combinations of parents, finally settling upon a group of unlikely shipping-crate-clad guardians.

The BoxTrolls trailer lets its orphaned hero try every
possible combination of parents, finally settling upon
a group of unlikely shipping-crate-clad guardians.

In case you missed it earlier this month, LAIKA (Oregon’s stopmo film juggernaut responsible for “ParaNorman” and “Coraline”) premiered a trailer for upcoming feature film “The BoxTrolls,” an adaptation of Alan Snow’s “Here Be Monsters.” As a LAIKA alum who’s spent the last year staying mum just to be on the safe side, unsure what’s already common knowledge and what’s still considered top-secret, this release is a relief. Now that project specs and office scuttlebutt are flowing freely, it’s finally time to watch the trailer and talk some shop.

Full disclosure, I haven’t visited LAIKA’s production floor since “Norman,” and haven’t worked onsite since “Coraline.” Perhaps everything’s completely changed; maybe I’m too far removed. But my first look at “BoxTrolls” feels eerily familiar. Certain creative seeds that took root at LAIKA as far back as “Coraline” are, it seems, just now flowering. Here’s a short list of trappings that may be unique to “BoxTrolls,” but were foreshadowed by LAIKA’s previous films:

Stylistic consistency…

It looks like the character style and the setting here (more or less) match—and though that provision may seem obvious, it’s too often absent from stop-motion works in particular. Realistic settings are often the backdrop for cartoonish puppets, and conversely, realistic puppets often inhabit cartoonish settings. Harmony between the two doesn’t happen by accident, only by diligence. LAIKA’s “Coraline” and “Norman” have walked a fine line on this score, while rival studio Aardman Animations’ 2012 Oscar competitor “Pirates!” fully offended, with realistic ships manned by a cartoony crew.

If the “BoxTrolls” trailer aesthetic holds true across the film, expect greater style cohesion than we’ve recently seen in stop-mo (with the exception of “Nightmare Before Christmas,” created before the LAIKA brand).

Finally, a period piece.

Really, it’s about time. Throughout “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” LAIKA has flirted with bygone eras like a sheepish weekend cos-player, indulging its obvious yen for the past only in small, anachronistic bursts. Though “Coraline” wore bluejeans and used a cell phone like any modern tween, her story was uncannily trimmed with tassels, velvet, and even Shakespearean ruff collars and pumpkin-pants. “ParaNorman”‘s storyline played out in the 80’s; even so, the zombies of colonial America reared their pilgrim-hatted, powdered-wigged heads.

In “BoxTrolls,” it looks like LAIKA’s finally set a whole story in a bygone era, turning its passing fancy for antiquing into a full-on affair. Since the company has long accommodated a large pool of British talent, it’s also not surprising that the setting has finally travelled across the proverbial pond. And why NOT go hardcore historical, in a medium that demands that everything be made from scratch anyway? Historical fashionistas, be prepared for LAIKA’s era interpretation to ever-so-slightly yank your corset strings. While “Here Be Monsters” is set in 1803, closer to the regency/Georgian transition, it looks like “BoxTrolls” pushes its poetic license to include Victorian styles.

The “Belleville” aesthetic

If the look and feel of this sneak-peek reminds you of “Triplets of Belleville”—you’re onto something. “Triplets” scenic illustrator Michel Breton, who later became a LAIKA concept artist, seems to have influenced this tableau more than past projects. On “Coraline,” Breton was put (figuratively and literally) in a corner, assigned to paint and composite rural northwest American scenery when his expertise clearly lies closer to antique urban European architecture. But two films later, it looks like LAIKA is finally leveraging the opinionated French Canadian’s signature vision.

Steam punk: LAIKA’s new goth?

The sepia palette, ubiquitous in “Belleville,” also happens to be a hallmark of steam punk, a fiction-genre-spawned style school that, for all (im)practical purposes, may be “the new goth.” The steam punk style precedent, set by films like “Hugo” and shows like “Firefly,” numerous comics, cabaret and vaudeville revival shows, and cosplay events like GearCon, has long been a favored niche among LAIKA makers. “Coraline” clothier Paloma Soledad, for example, was cosplaying and corset-making throughout her work on that film.

While “Nightmare Before Christmas” merchandise has enthralled goths for 20 years straight, “Coraline”‘s Rainbow Brite spectrum and “ParaNorman”‘s 1980’s-bermuda-short palette have relegated their merch to a passing fancy for the self-definingly monochromatic subculture. Looks like LAIKA’s wisely chosen a new black: a browned-out, ruffly, Victorian style that firmly hitches “Trolls” to the steam punk bandwagon (or steam train…or zeppelin).

The meek shall inherit…

By appointing Graham Annable as “BoxTrolls”’ co-director, LAIKA continues a trend it began with “ParaNorman”‘s Chris Butler: ushering in-house storyboard talent up to a co-director chair. There’s probably some wisdom in this old-fashioned apprenticeship model; a storyboard artist accustomed to drawing scenes out frame-by frame is likely to bring an especially detail-oriented approach to directing.

I only remember Annable during the “Coraline” production as an amiable, quiet Canadian guy, a member of the lunchroom “muffin club” that swapped and sampled baking recipes (with fellow Canadian comicbook writer Vera Brosgol and illustrator Chris Turnham). Compared to Chris Butler, the talkative British then-department-head who would soon rise to a director post on “Norman,” Annable was an introvert, holding his formidable animation, arts, and publishing credits closer to his vest. Will Annable’s character choices mirror his own social subtlety? While it’s not explicitly a good or bad thing, understatement is a trait worth watching for in “BoxTrolls”.

Gay families, as a matter of fact.

Casual acceptance of gay families alongside single-parent families is the feature of the “BoxTrolls” trailer that EVERYONE’s been talking about, from HuffPo to PoMo, and LAIKA has to have anticipated that buzz. If gayness seems anachronistic in straight-laced Victorian times, consider the era’s many literary bastions of bachelorhood (Oscar Wilde, anyone?), or what some contend was the “queer side” of the Dickens canon.

The way the subject of gayness here is NOT so much sensationalized as matter-of-factly dispensed with, is in keeping with a broader shift in the theater world’s (ahem) orientation to the subject. As Barry Johnson observed at last weekend’s JAW Festival, “A lot of the sexual material involved gay characters, but this usually wasn’t a BIG DEAL in the plays.”

NOTES

As always with stop-mo, it’s amazing to appreciate the secret years that have been sunk into a production before we even get a first glimpse, and it’s daunting to think of how long we still have to wait. The BoxTrolls will premiere in September of 2014, with A-list voices Sir Ben Kingsley (Gandhi) and Simon Pegg (Sean of the Dead, Spaced, Hot Fuzz) chiming in.

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A. L. Adams also writes for  The Portland Mercury and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury

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