The producer and head of production of Laika’s Missing Link talks about the studio’s fierce dedication and responsibility to its viewers.
Looking at this year’s nominees for the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature Film, you will notice one thing about Laika’s Missing Link: It is the only nominee in that category that isn’t a sequel or remake. Frozen II, The Lion King, Toy Story 4, and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World are all exceptional entries for the Globe, but they are all continuations of a previous story. They are all beautifully crafted, but Missing Link tells the most original story. It should be a lock for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Oscars.
Every time a new Laika film is released, the audiences rave about how original and striking the film is. There aren’t any characters that we compare from previous films, and we always marvel at how beautiful everything in a Laika film looks and feels. I have constantly said that I am obsessed with the textures in Chris Butler’s film, and every repeat viewing of Missing Link reinforces that.
Producer Arianne Sutner’s passion for telling original tales is evident in how she speaks about the studio’s history. Missing Link‘s colorful world is a departure from some of Laika’s darker-toned animated features, and that brightness really resonates with the film’s themes of acceptance and identity. The messages of self-love and respecting one another are right there in the film, but it’s not cloying or cheap. You feel for Mr. Link and you yearn for him to live the life that he wants to live. Don’t we all deserve that?
Awards Daily: Some people geek out about Star Wars, but I freak out over Laika films.
Arianne Sutner: In this holiday week, that’s really nice to hear. We all really appreciate it.
AD: Congratulations on the Golden Globe nomination for Animated Feature.
AD: Missing Link is the only non-sequel and non-remake of the nominees, and you have the potential to repeat that at the Oscars—at least from an American studio.
AD: Can you talk about Laika’s dedication to original storytelling?
AS: It’s easy to talk about because it’s our ethos. It’s what we’re always talking about. I can only talk about my experience. We are putting out less material, so we are always wanting to tell the penultimate story—the ultimate story of the character’s life. I never want to come across as insulting to what other artists are doing and their incredible work.
AD: Of course.
AS: It’s important to me. Everybody works so incredibly hard, and those are incredible movies.
AD: They are.
AS: We spend five years on a movie. We are working intensely to make sure they are enduring. We are not—at least at this stage—doing more than one movie at a time. It’s important to us to tell the stories that are the most pivotal in a character’s life. Not the second most important. It invigorates me and our creative supervisors to change our world up to make sure it’s entirely different than the last world we created. I think of it as a palette cleanser. We go from ancient Japan to this adventure story. It’s like having a different visual vocabulary in addition to tackling new challenges. This time we really tackled water systems, and we might do something else on the next one. We don’t think of stop-motion animation as a genre, so it’s fun for us to do other genres.
AD: It’s not like stop-animation is going to go anywhere any time soon, but sometimes I feel like we can’t comprehend the difficulty of this type of film, how things need to be physically moved on the stages to create that continuity. You can feel the hands touching the film almost, if that makes sense?
AS: It makes it fun to work on, and I think it has something to do with why our movies look different and why stop-motion animation in our movies endures. They still look good in five or 10 years, and I think it’s because that plays into it.
AD: With this style of animation, do you wish people knew how much practical work goes into creating such original stories?
AS: I don’t mind people appreciating our dedication to telling original stories in this climate. I dig that. I like people that are like us. There are so many stories to tell and so many characters to introduce, and I don’t mind people finding out. In terms of the amount of labor that goes into it, I don’t mind if people don’t know the specifics; I just want people to see our movies. It’s really fun to show people, to see their intense appreciation. I imagine it would have been intuitive, removing an object and moving something in its place, but people think it’s all done on a keyboard. I think it’s almost funny that they make those assumptions, but it’s been like that from the beginning. It’s like playing with dolls but moving one frame at a time and then [they’re] magically brought to life. It’s intuitive in a lot of ways even though it’s gone away from how people are making movies nowadays.
AD: We consume things so fast now.
AD: We instantly want more of something we know we love. I call it gimme gimme culture. Missing Link is Laika’s fifth film, and the studio hasn’t made a sequel of anything. I read that Laika, at this stage, isn’t interested in doing sequels. Do a lot of people ask if there are going to be continuations of stories, and how do you react to that?
AS: Yeah! I’m always happy to see more of certain things. People want to see Coraline 2, but if you investigate that—and I mean really take a look at that—is there really something more spectacular that could happen to her on the cusp of becoming an adult? If you dig into it, I can’t wrap my head around that. How do you bring that magic back? When Neil Gaiman says that he has thought of something that’s as magical and important in his mind, we might do it? I want people to be hungry for not just the same stuff that we do, but I want to keep doing that. People love these characters and the worlds we create, and these are absolutely the highest form of what we can do in terms of the care and our process. We are really unsparing in the details. Maybe there’s room in this world to explore these worlds in other ways.
AD: Like what?
AS: Not necessarily bringing these characters in the theater. Maybe there’s something in series form or a musical, but not how we bring life on our stages.
AD: I would love to see any of these movies done as a musicals. Coraline as a musical would be so visually bonkers or a musical version of The Boxtrolls would be right up my alley.
AS: For a live audience? Absolutely. But it would have to be our version of that.
AD: The set pieces would be so incredible.
AS: The Boxtrolls has more music than all of our other films. Kubo [and the Two Strings] would be like an opera—not that we’re doing that. (Laughs)
AD: Maybe 15 or 20 years from now we could revisit it?
AD: I spoke with Chris Butler about the themes of identity in Missing Link, and I think it’s really important that Laika is introducing these things in animated films. I remember when people were freaking out over ‘the twist’ at the end of ParaNorman. People freaked out that.
AS: Yes. (Laughs)
AD: With Missing Link, there wasn’t an angry fervor over those discussions. Maybe we are just moving in the right direction?
AS: And as humans, we are all different. We’re all the same.
AD: Some monsters can be human and some humans can be monstrous. Can you touch upon having that confidence in introducing those themes in a film targeted towards families and young people?
AS: We do have confidence in our stories and we don’t back away from intense moments in movies. We do like to leaven them, especially if it’s scary. We want to explore these things. It’s life. We have a studio filled with different people, and we want to represent everybody. And not just sexual identity, but all those aspects of who we are and how we are. How imperfect we all are. Even in Sir Lionel. I am personally not interested in seeing a protagonist who isn’t flawed. Like deeply, deeply flawed. What kind of a deep exploration is that? What kind of fun is that? Who is that person?
AS: With The Boxtrolls, it was about finding your family, and that family can be anything. We had a gorgeous trailer that didn’t describe the movie exactly, but at that time they wouldn’t run that.
AD: I remember that!
AS: It was such a sweet thing. It was about the wide variety of families. What are families leading up to The Boxtrolls? It really celebrated loving each other, and people didn’t want to see that!
AD: It was a simple trailer talking about if your family had a mom and a dad or a two moms or two dads.
AD: That was a very sweet, simple teaser. I remember that so well now that you mention it.
AS: Nothing cynical. Just a celebration about humans. How do we support each other and celebrate that? All those different variations of families can be wonderful and supportive or not wonderful and supportive as any other traditional family. That was unacceptable for certain theater chains. We want to make movies that are entertaining but also endure. We march to our own drummer. For me, I don’t want to tell people how to be or how now to be, but I want to show people what’s out there. All the different variations of what it means to be human. Let people work things out. That’s my point of view.
AD: A film or a TV show or a cartoon on TV can present a perspective that’s unfamiliar to someone, but then they take the actions of the characters or the plot and they think they are having ideas pushed on them. It’s not shoving an opinion about you, but it’s giving you another shade that you may not have seen before, and it’s about how other people live. It all translates to empathy.
AS: That’s so beautiful. I want to use that. Can I steal that?
AD: Of course.
AS: I don’t want to beat people over the head, because then people want to beat me over the head with the opposing opinion. Let people decide. Let kids decide. The world is a big and varied place, and I know there is room for everybody. So many of our movies are bittersweet—maybe more on the side of bitter—but I want people to feel boundless optimism. I want people to see the big, beautiful world out there and have them instantly know there’s a place for them.
Missing Link is now available to own.