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In the new trailer for The Boxtrolls, the latest 3D animated feature from Portland-based Laika Studios, a sweet-faced toddler stands alone on a street as various combinations of parents in Victorian garb appear and disappear beside him.
“Sometimes there’s a mother,” the narrator intones. “Sometimes there’s a father. Sometimes there’s a father and a father. Sometimes both fathers are mothers.” Eventually, the little boy is spirited down a sewer by a friendly crew of crated monsters.
“Families come in all shapes and sizes,” says the narrator. “Even rectangles.”
That this decidedly upbeat and inclusive message should arrive on the most eventful week in gay rights history — one that saw both DOMA and Prop 8 struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court — is just a happy bit of happenstance for Laika, the rare mainstream studio to incorporate gay-positive depictions in their family films.
For Travis Knight, the 39-year-old president and CEO of Laika and an accomplished stop-motion animator in his own right, finding stories that send kids the right kinds of messages — and not necessarily the safest ones — is a top priority.
“We’re not in any way trying to be activists. We’re just trying to be who we are,” Knight tells The Hollywood Reporter not 24 hours after he and his wife welcomed their third child, a boy, into the world. “All art and all artists have a point of view, a way of looking at the world. We want to make films that are bold and distinctive and enduring and actually have something meaningful to say.”
The Laika chief, son of Nike founder Phil Knight, acknowledges that the movies he wants to make — hugely time-consuming projects that marry stop-motion and CG techniques — carry with them the risk of alienating wide swaths of the moviegoing public.
“There are going to be people who simply don’t agree with that and we understand, but we also won’t flinch from the consequences of that,” he says. “The kinds of films we make have to be consistent with our values and how we look at the world and sometimes that means putting yourselves out there a little bit.”
So in 2012’s ParaNorman (like Boxtrolls, a Laika co-production with NBCUniversal-owned Focus Features) we learn that the character of Mitch — a good-natured jock with bulging muscles voiced by Casey Affleck — is gay, after cheerleader Courtney (voiced by Anna Kendrick) musters the courage to ask him out to a movie. “That sounds great, Cathy,” Mitch responds, semicluelessly. “You’re gonna love my boyfriend. He’s, like, a total chick-flick nut!”
The scene is played for laughs, but for a change they are at the expense of Courtney — and, by extension, the entire audience — for wrongly assuming that an athletic meathead might not also be gay and perfectly comfortable with it. The film scored an Oscar nomination for best animated feature, and also a GLAAD Award nomination — a first for an animated film. Knight admits it came as a bit of a shock.
“You don’t ever do these kind of things with that in mind,” he says. “You just try to tell a compelling and meaningful story. But when people respond to your work in a positive way, it’s deeply gratifying. I think of all the things that came our way, the GLAAD nomination was the biggest surprise, but it was also one of the most meaningful for all of us.”
Due for a fall 2014 release, The Boxtrolls, based on Alan Snow‘s fantasy adventure novel Here Be Monsters, features the voice talents of Ben Kingsley, Simon Pegg and Tracy Morgan. Its charming teaser, which debuted Tuesday on iTunes, was a direct response to what Knight sees as a recent trend toward “loud, brash, frenetic and hollow” trailers among big-studio animated features.
“I felt like we had to go in the absolute opposite direction,” Knight explains. “That we needed to be resonant, that we needed to be meaningful, and that if we did it properly, our trailer would be a restorative tonic to the sensory assault of so many of these trailers.”
While Boxtrolls isn’t literally about same-sex parenting, it does pose at its core what Knight calls “a very simple, albeit cardinal, question.” Namely, what is a family?
“The Boxtrolls are a very loving community that have been marginalized by the lies and distortions of others,” Knight says. “It doesn’t take someone who’s got a Ph.D. to recognize that of course there are metaphoric elements to the message in our movie.”
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