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Animation Studio Laika Takes On ‘Wildwood’ From Decemberists’ Frontman Colin Meloy

Animation Studio Laika Takes On 'Wildwood' From Decemberists' Frontman Colin Meloy

The heat behind Laika, the Portland, Oregon-based stop motion animation studio (owned by Nike bigwig Phil Knight) that unleashed 2009’s outstanding fantasy film “Coraline,” has cooled somewhat since that release. The reason, of course, is that “Coraline” director (and Laika creative head) Henry Selick left the company shortly after “Coraline” was released – after unsuccessfully attempting to renegotiate his contract, he bolted for Pixar, setting up that studio’s first stop-motion division (about which we have heard precious few details, besides an October 4th, 2013 release date for its first film).

But that doesn’t mean the company isn’t cooking up new material – next summer will see the release of “ParaNorman,” a spooky tale about a small town overrun by zombies co-directed by Aardman vet Sam Fell, and they’ve just announced the purchase of an intriguing-sounding property, “Wildwood,” a young adult fantasy novel written by the Decemberists‘ lead singer Colin Meloy and illustrated by his wife Carson Ellis.

The book, which came out just last week, concerns a young protagonist named Prue McKneel who must navigate a magic-filled alternate version of Portland, Oregon, after her younger brother is kidnapped. Sounds a little “Coraline”-y, no?

Laika President and CEO (and Phil Knight’s son) Travis Knight described the project to Variety as “a story in the grand tradition of Tolkien, as big as ‘Lord of the Rings‘ with a wonderful contemporary quality as well.” He added that the project should be genuinely groundbreaking: ” “Nothing of its kind has been attempted in our medium. You have these epic scenes alongside very nuanced character moments, which are the two hardest things to do in stop-motion. It’s exciting to imagine how this might all come together.”

The report notes that despite Laika’s resistance to sequels, the “Wildwood” project is being approached as a trilogy (there will be two more novels as well). According to Knight, Meloy and Ellis only wanted the book adapted if it could be done in stop motion or in the earthy animated style of “Watership Down.”

“Hands down, there is no other movie studio in the world besides Laika that I would entrust ‘Wildwood’ to,” Meloy told Variety. Meloy first was introduced to the world of Laika when publisher HarperCollins wanted an animated trailer for the novel. “We were won over completely,” Ellis added.

There’s no telling when “Wildwood” might be ready for release, given its current embryonic stage and the fact that stop-motion movies take a really, really, ridiculously long time to develop and animate. Laika currently hasn’t announced their 2014 project, but we sincerely doubt this would be realized by then. Still: it’s an intriguing-sounding (if slightly familiar) project for the animation studio and should be proof that, even without Selick, they can still create ambitious and wildly imaginative projects.

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I just received my copy of the book, and so far it’s actually deceptively more complicated than the original synopsis. Sure, it’s an archetypal fantasy, but there are a lot of ironic, self-aware moments and subtly that really elevates it from the norm. The visual elements of the story really lend itself well to Laika’s style, too, I think. I was actually imagining the book as a Laika film before I heard the news. It fits very well. The tone is entirely different from Coraline (actually in many ways it’s more Fantastic Mr. Fox), but I like the idea of Laika doing another flick with themes of strong children going against larger-than-life evils in unconventional ways. Coraline and Prue are not little Cinderellas, and I like to see little girls having characters like those to admire. The stories remind me of Studio Ghibli’s goal of presenting stories for children about how not to run away from truly frightening dilemmas. I guess as a part-time children’s librarian, I am more interested in kid-lit than most, but I think it’s a good idea. It takes its audience seriously, doesn’t pander (it will send kids to the dictionary, for one thing), and is also just an old-fashioned, fun story. It’s not often one can find a story that so genuinely revels in language, image, and yarn-spinning, and so far I’m really enjoying it. I think as a kid I would have adored this story, as well, especially considering the spunky heroine.

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