CORALINE (2009) Laika’s first feature film, Coraline, came with an instant sense of cache thanks to director, Henry Selick, who helmed the Tim Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas. This deliciously creepy animated fantasy is a fabulous treat for the eyes. When young Coraline moves into a decrepit old mansion, she’s left to amuse herself while her writer parents focus on their work. In the course of exploring the ramshackle property and its sprawling garden, Coraline encounters a haughty cat, an odd boy who gets on her nerves, and her eccentric neighbours. But when she steps through a mysterious little door, Coraline finds her way to another house, one strangely similar to her own, only much nicer. She’s welcomed by an alternate mother and father who want her to be their little girl…but there’s a price to pay. When Coraline realises the true evil of the “other mother”, the stakes are raised. In true mythological fashion, Coraline has to outwit the villain and restore harmony. Blending stop-motion with exquisite CG animation, Selick’s film is breathtakingly enchanting and genuinely terrifying. Selick’s story actually improves on author Neil Gaiman’s magical book by fleshing out the tale and adding a new character (the boy) to the mix. Unfortunately, the old fashioned and mildly sexist ending, which draws from the annals of traditional storytelling, somewhat disappoints. But this moment only slightly undermines Coraline’s valour and ingenuity in an otherwise delightful and spooky film. Fascinatingly, Coraline is actually a horror movie posing as a kiddie picture, and has likely inspired its fair share of nightmares. It also established Laika as an animation house that does things a little differently. Pauline Adamek
PARANORMAN (2012) Now a trademark of Laika, the stop-motion animation in this story about a kid who sees dead people is on another level. Set in a New England town with witch hunting in its history, and dealing in themes that go beyond the “it’s okay to be different” messages that we’ve come to expect (and enjoy), ParaNorman is a morality tale taking in bullying, persecution, and the mob mentality. It also contains the first gay character in an animated film made for the multiplex. Norman (voiced by Australian, Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a well-developed character. He’s a kid living on the outer, and he’s easy to like and sympathise with. The story has its merits too, focusing on Norman’s ability to chat to the departed, and an old curse. The voice cast is strong, and includes John Goodman, Jeff Garlin and Casey Affleck, and the directors have a fine lineage, with Chris Butler having worked on Coraline and Corpse Bride, while Sam Fell co-directed Flushed Away and the under-rated The Tale Of Despereaux. Yet something’s amiss. This world – which uses a classic horror template – borders on claustrophobic, while the character designs, at times, lean more towards the grotesque than the cute. It’s intriguing to start with – and the amazing visuals capture you – but something drops in the middle, and ultimately, despite the brilliant design, it doesn’t have the entertainment value of other films of its ilk. Not as good as the brilliant and considerably darker Coraline, the elements are there, but they never quite gel. Well-received on its release, there still seems to be something lacking from ParaNorman – the indefinable ingredient that pulls you in, and leaves you on a post-film high. Annette Basile
THE BOXTROLLS (2014) There’s a lot to love about The Boxtrolls, a goofy animated comedy that’s fun for the whole family. Based on Alan Snow’s children’s novel, Here Be Monsters, The Boxtrolls is set in the Victorian era, and features a number of recognisable voices, including the young and talented Isaac Hampstead-Wright (Game Of Thrones) and Elle Fanning, along with A-list stars, Ben Kingsley, Nick Frost, and Simon Pegg. The story focuses on a young orphan boy named Eggs (Hampstead-Wright), and his quest to protect a group of underground cave-dwelling trash collectors referred to as the Boxtrolls. With the help of a local girl named Winnie (Fanning), Eggs sets out on a mission to take down Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), an evil exterminator who wishes to eliminate the Boxtrolls and join the town’s elite group of cheese connoisseurs. Laika’s animation is once again grandiose, and it’s obvious that the studio has put considerable effort into constructing the fictional town of Cheesebridge. The visuals will no doubt impress, and there are a number of spectacular animations, from Archibald Snatcher’s mega-drill to the gargantuan cheese wheel that he wishes to feast upon. Thankfully, there are also jokes aplenty for the adults, such as a cross-dressing Archibald Snatcher and a number of subtle jabs at convenient plot devices used in animated kids’ movies. The Boxtrolls are a quirky and misunderstood group of creatures, and their behaviour is often absurd, yet amusing. A few twists and turns will keep viewers on the edge of their seats, but the overall message is that we should be accepting of one another. It’s a thoroughly entertaining comedy-adventure that will appeal to all ages. Toli Papadopoulos
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (2016) Every new Laika production is anything but familiar, and with Kubo And The Two Strings, they have created their first masterpiece. The film starts with an expressionistic scene of a mother sailing the choppy seas with her newborn boy, Kubo. We soon see Kubo (voiced by Game Of Thrones’ Art Parkinson) as a young boy, living Grinch-like away from town and possessing powers that allow him to play a shamisen (a Japanese banjo-like stringed instrument), which turns paper into life-size origami. He’s also a storyteller, earning whatever money he can by busking in the local village. Warned to never stay out after dark, Kubo breaks his curfew, and the darkness of the world forces him on a journey to uncover the secrets of his family, assisted by a talking monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and a giant beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey). Ultimately, this is, without doubt, the most original creation from an American studio that you will have seen in the past five years. Its flights of creativity are not hindered by pre-existing knowledge or genres or shared universes; the only touchstone that could be brought up is the effect of watching The Wizard Of Oz for the very first time. There are parts of Kubo And The Two Strings (including its cryptic and open-to-interpretation title) that happen so organically, without any explanation, that it’s a joy to behold for modern audiences who are so used to spoon-feeding. Kubo And The Two Strings melds stop motion animation with the latest CGI; and Asian mythology with American artistry, and the result is the first, and potentially last, great movie of 2016. Dov Kornits
Kubo And The Two Strings is in cinemas now. Click through for our exclusive interview with the film’s director (and Laika kingpin), Travis Knight.