Studio Laika. They’re known for lovely and charming claymation films, including the recent and widely popular Kubo and the Two Strings. However, Kubo was an anomaly for them. Matthew McConaughey’s dedicated impression of George Clooney made for a dedicated and convincing father. By contrast, the other three feature films in the studio’s official lineage share among them a similar take on their neglectful, prideful parents who harbor distant relationships with their protagonist-of-a-child.
Of course, distance is not always a commentary on parents. Portraying a parent or two or few as being neglectful or unfair or self-important is often just a condition to emphasize a child’s perspective on the world and to allow the main character child to go off unsupervised on fantastical quests. Think: Spirited Away. Chihiro’s story in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is introduced and concluded with parents who appear disengaged and less-than-sympathetic with Chihiro. But the film definitely outlines a coming-of-age for Chihiro, and she is left with a more mature perspective and less rebellion against her parents.
This is adequate to describe Chihiro’s parents, where the bulk of the story is entrenched in her adventure and her childlike wonder. There’s a similar transformation in the parents of Laika films, but these parents cannot be swept aside as such simple plot devices.
I’ll introduce them:
[Sally’s Dr. Frankenstein-esque creator Dr. Finklestein is nothing short of controlling and hostile and jealous (The Nightmare Before Christmas).] Coraline’s workaholic garden-catalogue-author parents ignore her, shoo her away, scold her unfairly, and neither trust nor believe her when strange things start happening (Coraline). Norman’s parents do not believe in his ability to see ghosts, and his dad resents his being less-than-normal as much as any bully he faces at school (Parnanorman). And Winnie’s dad ultimately cares more about his social status and his cheese than about her well-being (The Boxtrolls).
Though by no means Sony Animation, Laika does offer us reconciliation with resolution between child and dad. Coraline’s parents successfully pitch and sell their garden catalogue, and they come around to make a happier family and actually plant a garden. Norman’s dad is forced to put his life and trust in Norman’s hands, and he gains access to a different view of and better relationship with Norman. And Winnie’s dad, after several opportunities, finally puts his daughter in front of himself and his social status.
The protagonist’s relationship with her/his dad/parents is integrated into each story. The “Other World” which Coraline visits is inhabited by alternate versions of her parents, a cherishing mother and a doting father. Idealized versions, in her mind. But the problem is that they were fake (also a parasitic monster). And the real, flawed parents proved to be better.
Norman has the most normal life with his parents. A family in a household. A friend and a school and a bully and a sister. So any adventures he takes part in are going to involve navigating a household and, in the end, cooperating with his parents. His dad wants him to be normal. His mom, probably at least partially in denial, acts as his apologist and defender. These dynamics take part while Norman already is trying to figure out who he is and come into his own.
Winnie’s dad is both an access to authority and a shut door of authority. He seems the perfect spokesperson to use to reveal the Boxtrolls’ terrible secret, that they are not evil monsters. But he’s also the distant, in-the-clouds (literally? He’s pretty tall) wall who’s practically under the spell of his tall white hat, society’s mob-like expectations, and Archibald Snatcher’s cunning. And Winnie loses faith in her father until he finally fights and redeems himself in the conclusory battle.
As with any coming-of-age story, it takes an adventure and growth for the protagonist to build a better relationship with adults. But there is a standard method for this. Our child-protagonist loses faith in her/his parents first, goes off on an unrelated quest of discovery and world-saving fantasy, and returns to normal life and a rooted appreciation for family.
Laika follows this to the ‘t.’ But they make sure to add in two little bits. Firstly, that the protagonist’s relationship with his parents is essential to the story (mind you, a ‘bad’ relationship throughout). And then, that even after a “happy family” is restored, the parents are still very flawed, imperfect people. Flawed to the point that their redemptions are questionable. Flawed to the point that we ask whether they were ever genuinely ‘good’ people, even if they act as sufficient parents now.
Laika makes us question.