Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yIdKHN1Bu0M
I have no children, yet I am extremely concerned about the content of children’s movies. Watching WALL*E, for example, I remember thinking “Jesus, even I am shaken by the plight of this robot. I wonder what a five-year-old thinks.” Fiction for children has a long history of disturbing content. Coraline, the new animated Neil Gaiman adaptation, is the latest addition to that fine tradition. Visually stunning and with fine voice acting, the movie has some creepy moments, yet the parts do not add to a greater whole.
Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) has moved from Michigan to Oregon. Her mother (Teri Hatcher) and father (John Hodgman) are preoccupied with their blossoming garden business. The new situation leaves the young Coraline unhappy, and she is not afraid to voice her dissatisfaction. With oodles of times on her hands, she stumbles upon a portal not unlike the one in Being John Malkovich. On the other side of the portal, she finds a delightfully bizarre copy of her home. The key difference is that her Other Mother (also Hatcher), who has buttons for eyes, replaces her old one. The Other Mother seems warmer, and dotes upon Coraline, offering gifts and delicious food. Soon Coraline spends more of her time in the Other world. Naturally things are not exactly what they seem. Warnings from a Cat (Keith David) and a young boy make Coraline wary of Other Mother. To make matters worse, Coraline opens a gift only to discover two buttons and a needle. Sure, she’s attached to her eyes (in more ways than one), but Other Mother demands them.
Coraline is the first 3D movie I’ve seen since I went to Epcot Center 15 years ago. Director Henry Selick wisely uses the added dimension in an understated way – only once does a sharp object seem uncomfortably close. It is a nice touch when Coraline looks longingly through a rainy window, and you could see the space between her and the raindrops. The animation is lush and off-kilter in that Edward Gorey sort of way. Characters have exaggerated features, and occasionally veer towards the grotesque. The movie’s strongest asset is its writing. Coraline is not the plucky kid one often finds in children’s movies, one for whom it is easy to cheer. She’s a sourpuss and not easily likeable, a fact which makes her feel more authentic than many of her flesh-and-blood counterparts. She does not have bad parents, just distracted ones, the kind of realistic adults who would infuriate a curious kid with no patience. Dakota Fanning deserves some of the credit, too. All the voicework is top-notch – it’s refreshing to see a director choose quality voice actors instead of movie stars. Ian McShane is particularly amusing as a Russian acrobat, and I think we can all agree that Keith David should be everyone’s first choice for a cat.
I said earlier that the sums do not add to a greater whole. Where does the movie make its missteps? I think that Selick plays it a little safe – the movie will frighten only the youngest children. If memory serves, The Nightmare Before Christmas has more genuinely frightening moments. But then again, Selick’s earlier work was scarier because I saw it as a child. There’s the explanation! Coraline works, but moreso for children than adults. Anyone who appreciates innovative animation should see the movie, but not necessarily expect an engrossing experience. I think that Pixar has set my expectations too high.
Here are other bizarre animated movies that bright (precocious) young things (kids) should watch:
Renaissance. Directors like Peter Jackson and Robert Zemeckis have been lauded for their use of motion-capture animation. Me? I’m a little bored of fantasy creatures like a naked, gold-plated Angelina Jolie. It’s refreshing, therefore, to see a movie like Renaissance, which uses motion-capture to create a one-of-a-kind world. Paris 2054 – a totalitarian regime ensures that everyone is constantly spied upon. A scientist for the Avalon corporation is kidnapped, and it’s up to Karas (voiced by Daniel Craig) to find her. The movie drips with noiry atmosphere, so it be no surprise that Karas uncovers a massive conspiracy, and is betrayed by his confidantes. As you can see above, the movie is filmed with stark blacks and whites. Unlike old b&w movies, the whites are glaring, sometimes even harsh on the eyes. The look is well-suited to the plot – a perfect juxtaposition of noir and sci-fi. Director Christian Volckman spent six fucking years working on this movie, and it’s clear that the majority of his time was spent on motion-capture. The story will drain from your memory, yet you’ll remember the stunning visuals for years to come.
The Triplets of Belleville. Part of WALL*E’s appeal was that for its first third, the movie had little dialog. It relied upon an expressive hero, and succeeded so admirably that it was disappointing when characters began to speak. The Triplets of Belleville offers no such disappointment – there is barely any dialog. In fact, I first watched this French movie with no subtitles, and barely missed a beat. It tells the story of a driven cyclist who gets kidnapped by the mob, and how the cyclist’s douty mother comes to the rescue. The whole movie looks like a pleasant nightmare – as with Coraline, every setting and character has greatly exaggerated features. My favorites arevthe thugs who look like giant boxes, and the maître d’ who has a rubbery spine. The mother, with her club foot and large glasses, somewhat resembles WALL*E, and even comes close to being as sympathetic a character. As for the triplets themselves, they’re initially bizarre in a “smelly old granny” kind of way, but once they began their unique musical act, they win you right over. Honestly, I can’t think of many cartoons bursting with as much imagination as this one.
The Work of Don Hertzfeldt. This is cheating, maybe. Don Hertzfeldt has never made a feature-length movie, and there is little of his work that’s readily available on Netflix (unless you count The Animation Show compilation). Still, he is widely regarded as an excellent animator. His work must be painstaking –his cartoons are hand-drawn, and is known to do all the work himself. They feature simple stick figures that most any grade-schooler could draw, yet Hertzfeldt is innovative in the way he breaks the fourth wall of his paper. He perhaps best known for Rejected, a nine minute cartoon that contains dark, amazing, batshit insane humor. I first saw the cartoon as a college freshman, and can hardly remember an occasion where I’ve laughed as hard. There’s this odd compulsion in me to show Rejected to unsuspecting friends. They usually have the same reaction – confusion, laughter, anger, revulsion, confusion, and finally sadness. You’ll have to watch to see what I mean. Other cartoons, like the cerebral The Meaning of Life, have been described as, “The closest thing on film yet to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.” As far as I’m concerned, anyone who makes ass jokes and can be validly compared to Kubrick is worth your time. Above you can watch Billy’s Balloon – a cute, diverting cartoon that’ll give you an idea of what’s in store.
That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I take on a global financial conspiracy.