Laika is an animation studio in the ascendant. Both Coraline and ParaNorman, their first two features, were financially successful Oscar nominees. It would be shocking if The Boxtrolls didn’t follow suit, on both counts. The intricate detail of their animation is often witty, warm and breathtaking all in the same moment. No frame is left empty or drab, no opportunity for creativity left behind. That all of this is done using 3D stop-motion makes it seem all the more artful.
This is not to say that what Pixar does on computers is any less creative than what Laika does with physical sets and models, but there is certainly a difference in the way the audience relates to the work. Pixar mimics the real world in many cases, focusing on the exact rendering of Princess Merida’s hair in Brave rather than venturing into abstraction. Laika creates universes that enchant through their artifice, rather than in spite of it. Besides, it wouldn’t be too controversial a position to state that all three of Laika’s films are better than all of the last three Pixar features.
All of that said, take a second and imagine what a Laika film would be like if it were made using computer animation instead of stop-motion. At one point they were planning on a CG feature called Jack & Ben’s Animated Adventure but it was dropped in 2008 in the context of a major layoff of the company’s employees. When they were founded, all the way back in 2005, it wasn’t clear that stop-motion would become the primary product. At that point Laika was under the leadership of supervising director Henry Selick, who had directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, and Monkeybone.
That was when Laika produced its first and only theatrical short film.
Moongirl premiered at the Ottawa International Animation Festival in 2005, where it won a Special Jury Prize. Directed by Selick, it is at once suggestive of the later style of Coraline and ParaNorman and quite clearly the work of the man who brought us The Nightmare Before Christmas. It begins in a swamp somewhere in the American South, where a young boy named Leon is night fishing with his pet lizard and a jar of lightning bugs. Suddenly he’s lifted up into the air, boat and all, by an enormous catfish made out of stars that has taken his bait mid-swing. After a ride through the sky he ends up on the moon, where he is welcomed by its resident Moongirl and her enormous cat, Siegfried.
It’s a bit like Pixar’s La Luna with a lot more plot and a great deal of chatting. The villain is a ghost-like creature that harasses Moongirl and attempts to steal away the lightning bugs that keep the Moon bright. It is a skeletal and translucent beast that can split in two and sports a Jack O’Lantern smile. Selick’s collaboration with Tim Burton rushes to mind, of course. Yet the two children are more in the tradition of Laika’s later features, plucky youngsters who respond to the abrupt change in their lives by rising to mystical and confusing challenge.
As for the animation, there are a handful of moments sprinkled about the cartoon’s 8 minutes that really impress. The starry catfish is an early thrill, along with a final chase sequence out in open space. The details of the inside of the Moon, complete with a spiral staircase and colorful carousel, feel like the beginnings of a stunningly intricate universe, though they aren’t exactly immersive. The balance between the deep astral blues and the warm light of the lightning bugs is perhaps the best thing about it, a simple but lovely artistic choice. On the whole, Moongirl is a delightful first endeavor for studio, one that hints at future greatness even if it isn’t evident quite yet.