One of the most stunning movie moments I can remember is for the first time seeing Neo slowly leaning back to avoid bullets as they rippled through the air toward him during The Matrix's famous rooftop scene. Forget the brilliantly choreographed fight sequence that preceded it: this was something unimaginably amazing. I'm sure everyone had a moment like this with computer-generated effects, but it probably happened a while back now, some time in the ’90s. And you probably haven’t seen anything quite as memorable since.
"Transformers. Pacific Rim. They're fantastic, amazing achievements in technology and imagery and spectacle, but I don't think they wow people anymore," director Anthony Stacchi says. "They've got so big — and they are incredible — but the rarest thing you can see in the movies now is something that looks different. Something that looks surprising. Something that's real."
Along with animator Graham Annable, Stacchi has just finished directing The Boxtrolls, a children's film made almost entirely with stop-motion animation. The film is about a boy who’s raised by bumbling, tinkering, and kind creatures called Boxtrolls, which are being hunted down by humans that think they’re evil. It has chase sequences, hijinks, and is often quite funny, but the most notable thing about it is just how neat it looks: there's nothing else quite like this in theaters.
Perhaps more than anything, that's why the studio behind The Boxtrolls, Laika, is banking on success. "It looks like nothing you've ever seen before," Stacchi says. Aside from good buzz, "You're hoping people caught a glimpse of [the film] somewhere and it does strike them ... this does look different, this does look special."
You can think of Laika as the stop-motion equivalent of Pixar: it makes a small number of films, it spends a long time crafting them — The Boxtrolls, for instance, shot for 18 months and has been in the works since the studio formed nearly a decade ago — and they all look beautiful. Laika hasn’t tapped into the same perfectly moving and emotional stories as Pixar, but it’s still established a strong voice of its own, something a bit more offbeat than what you’d find elsewhere. The studio's first two films, Coraline and ParaNorman, saw plenty of acclaim on their releases. The Boxtrolls, too, is a fun little adventure, even if it’s ultimately just a kids’ movie.
Laika is intentionally bucking viewer demand, pressing on with stop motion even though it's certainly aware that computer-animated films do better at the box office. A lot of that is thanks to the will and interest of its CEO, Travis Knight (and the fact that the studio is owned by his father, the fabulously wealthy Phil Knight, who co-founded a small company called Nike). Knight is an animator himself, and Laika is very much the result of his passion. Growing up, he began trying to recreate stop-motion effects on his own in his parents' basement and garage.
Knight believes stop motion taps into feelings of childhood in a way that other animation can't. "I think it's a primal thing that's evocative of being a kid," he says. "Playing with your action figures and your dolls, the play things come to life. Stop motion is a recorded version of that: a kid's imagination as they're playing with their toy."
"Stop motion has always tapped into this dreamscape," Stacchi says. "If you look at the new King Kong and the old King Kong: which one feels like a dream? Which one escapes reality? The new one ... doesn't get in your head the same way that old puppet does."
Stacchi and Knight are right. Their way is often cooler and far more memorable. It's hard not to love the sword-wielding skeletons of Jason and the Argonauts or Star Wars' brief shot of Luke riding a Tauntaun. The fact that the medium is inherently stylized doesn't hurt either. There's no one point in Laika's movies that's meant to match the spectacle of CG, no skeleton battle to compete with a Michael Bay explosion. Instead, it's the films as a whole — surprising and stylish and something that captivates you because of how carefully everything’s been made.
That this medium won't grow dated at the same rapid pace that computer animation does is a big bonus too. "When you look at Nightmare Before Christmas, which came out in ’93, and then you look at Toy Story, which came out in ’95, [they're] both wonderful films and yet there's a timelessness in the visuals of Nightmare Before Christmas that you don't get in Toy Story," Knight says. "It's a great film, but it looks dated because of the technology."
The same becomes true for many of even the smallest VFX sequences in early films using CG, begging us to imagine what Transfomers will look like in 10 years. The last time I watched The Matrix’s bullet time shot, I noticed something new: the world around Neo was surprisingly empty. The ground was devoid of texture. The two guns that Neo had dropped to his feet were missing. It was once an amazing shot — and now it looks only half-finished.
What Jurassic Park gave the world when it introduced its brilliant, computer-generated dinosaurs is by no means bad. Movies have been able to do amazing things with it, but theaters are full of examples of CG that's more dulling than invigorating — their effects are either not good enough, or they're just noise, thrown into film like salt into a flavorless dish. The "updated" Star Wars DVDs may be a prime example of what's gone wrong. Laika serves as proof that it's still possible to turn away from CG in a modern film for an option that remains extraordinary to us. Knight even says that it's often less expensive, though The Boxtrolls’ long shoot time hints at just how much more time consuming it can be.
Laika isn't going to unwind the clock, though. And it's hard to even imagine that its bastion of classic filmmaking will inspire more practical effects in the next big budget movie. But if you want, for just a short hour and a half, you can step into the theater and return to a different time. It looks great — and it's unlike anything you've seen in a good long while.
The Boxtrolls opens September 26th. All images courtesy Focus Features.