There’s a LGBT movement happening, not at the voting booth but at the box office: A quiet revolution that may be more threatening to far-right wingnuts than thought possible. It’s kids’ movies. From ParaNorman to Frozen, animated films aimed at children (but also enjoyed by adults) are shaping how kids think about LGBT issues without ever uttering the word “gay.” The latest threat: The Boxtrolls.
It remains to be seen just how great this new animated film will be when it’s released Sept. 26, but the damage (or rather, the benefit) may have already been done. When the film’s studio, Laika — the team behind ParaNorman and Coraline — started promoting the film, they did so with a trailer that showed the many types of families that kids can have today (although the humans are all wearing Victorian garb).
A narrator intones: “Sometimes there’s a mother. Sometimes there’s a father. Sometimes there’s a father and a father. Sometimes both fathers are mothers.” Eventually we see the little boy’s “real” family in this film—the titular little creatures in crates — and the narrator says, “But sometimes, there are boxes,” concluding that “families come in all shapes and sizes, even rectangles.”
In a political landscape where marriage equality and same-sex parenting are becoming pop culture standards (think Lily and her fathers on Modern Family), this may seem an innocuous message. But placing a pro-gay message in the trailer for a children’s film? Most social media experts agree that’s ballsy, even today, and it courts as much conservative backlash as it does LGBT viewers.
Of course for Laika, the Oregon-based animation studio owned by Nike chairman Phil Knight, the gay rights message was an easy choice. Knight and Nike have been vocal supporters of LGBT rights, and Knight’s son, 39-year-old animator Travis Knight, the CEO and president of Laika, told the Hollywood Reporter that it was a values issue for the company.
“We’re not in any way trying to be activists. We’re just trying to be who we are,” he said. “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. 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 yourself out there a little bit.”
While the film’s trailer pushes the envelope, it should also bring in the right kind of moviegoers, those who are drawn to the 3-D stop-motion and CG hybrid animated feature based on the best-selling kid’s fantasy adventure novel Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow; the same reasons they came to watch Coraline or ParaNorman, both of which risked backlash from social conservatives.
The trailer for The Boxtrolls is the most recent in a wave of animated children’s films that are changing America’s feelings about LGBT people and the families they form, perhaps as much as any legislation ever will, and regardless of the film's end product the studio behind it can be credited for taking that wave to new heights with this trailer. After all, ParaNorman, the last Laika film, was the first mainstream American animated children’s film to have an out gay character (and a handsome teenage boy to boot!). This past summer, animation giant DreamWorks released How to Train Your Dragon 2, which featured a character’s coming out, albeit a subtle one, thanks to an ad lib from voice actor Craig Ferguson.