Sunday, March 12, 2017

Laika Week, part I: Cute as a button


Flawed as it is, this impressively dark fairy tale would still manage to stand on its own—and be fully worthy of being called great—even if it weren't the necessary forerunner of some even better things to come.

Written and directed by Henry Selick (based on the book by Neil Gaiman)
With Dakota Fanning (Coraline Jones), Robert Bailey Jr. (Wybourne "Wybie" Lovat), Keith David (the Cat), Jennifer Saudens (April Sprink), Dawn French (Miriam Forcible), Ian McShane (Sergei "the Amazing" Bobinsky), John Hodgman/John Linnell (Charlie Jones), and Teri Hatcher (Mel Jones)

Spoiler alert: moderate

The Laika Introduction (contains class warfare)

You've probably noticed it by now—we're living in a golden age for American animation.  It might be the first there ever was, really: a hundred years from now, you could call it the golden age of American animation, and everyone would know what you're talking about, assuming, anyway, that there's still anyone left in the wasteland with an interest in cartoons.  When you get down to it, the other periods sometimes referred to as a golden age (the post-Snow White flowering in the 30s and 40s and the Disney Renaissance from 1989-2000, give or take) produced fewer masterpieces and near-masterpieces combined than the current one has so far (and the current one, presumably, isn't even over).  In fact, if you exclude movies made or distributed by Disney, while also limiting the category to works of a feature's length, they produced nearly none.

Not so this time: our putative golden age may be led critically and commercially by Walt Disney (alongside their in-house competition, Pixar), but it's become a much more balanced arena than it ever was before, with Sony and Warner Bros' animation arms each offering a super-classic of their own, and even DreamWorks managing to suck only about half the time.

There's one big name missing from our little list, of course, and that's Laika Entertainment, the end result of one of the most uninspiring fairy tales you'll ever hear.  The company began decades ago, as Will Vinton Studios, controlled by its eponymous founder.  But in the mid-1990s, facing financial difficulties, Vinton found himself face to face with Phil Knight, the billionaire behind Nike.  Knight bought a stake in Vinton's studio, and demanded a spot on the board, which is perfectly normal, as well as a highly curious personal quid pro quo, which wasn't.  In exchange for the much-needed infusion of cash, Vinton would offer an animation gig to an unsuccessful ex-rapper he'd never met, who (quite coincidentally) turned out to be Knight's youngest son, Travis.


The thing is, Travis Knight (the artist formerly known, to about five people, as Chilly Tee) turned out to be an exceptionally good animator.  And perhaps this is why, a few years down the road, the elder Knight had few qualms about wresting control of the Studio away from Vinton, and immediately handing it over to Travis, who shortly rebranded it "Laika," presumably after the dog the Russians murdered in outer space.  And so, the studio famed for painstakingly animating thousands of hyperexpressive dolls essentially amounts to a toy itself, purchased by a master of the universe for his heir.  Yet, despite these humble origins, the studio became such a powerhouse that at least one of their four feature films actually made a profit.  And, certainly, its continued operation owes nothing to large infusions of the elder Knight's child slavery money.

Clearly, it would take only about ten seconds for you to come up with at least ten far superior ways to balance Nike's blood debt than by making cartoons that don't even appear to pay for themselves.  But everything in this world is compromised; and their cartoons are awesome; and so it would take a far, far colder-hearted leftist than I to ever assert that the Knights haven't made our fallen world a little bit better by their efforts.  At the very least, they've left their mark on the pictures.  Plus, as far as being a pair of job creators goes, they've managed to employ 500 or so other weird hobbyists for Chilly to hang with.  Only thing is, some of them didn't stay for long.

And now, the actual movie review (plus a lousy short film!)

It just makes sense, though: if you, like Travis Knight, found yourself in the business of making stop-motion animated features, the most obvious first thing you'd do is call Henry Selick, the auteur behind The Nightmare Before Christmas, still probably the most beloved stop-motion feature ever made.

Well, if Selick was practically inevitable, then so too was Neil Gaiman, whose children's book Coraline Selick had already made plans to adapt when Laika brought him aboard.  During the years-long lead-up, however, Selick wrote and directed Laika's only short film, "Moongirl."  (Around the same time, Laika was engaged with production work on Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, thereby earning the young company a resounding win at Goth Media Bingo.)

Seemingly a shakedown cruise for the studio, "Moongirl" could've been Gaiman, too, though it really just points to the two creators' similar temperaments and abiding love for fairy tales: the short concerns a young lad with an aggressively Southern (or "Southern") accent, taking to his local lake one night to fish, only to find himself transported to the moon by a catfish made of stars, whereupon he must help the moon's female guardian battle the monsters who desire to turn off its natural lunar nightlight.  It's a noisome and shrill affair, I'm afraid, dominated by stridently-obvious sound cues of both the foley and musical varieties, albeit one with a very nice final beat where the Gaiman influence really shows—but, overall, it's kind of outright bad. (If nothing else, it makes choosing Laika's weakest effort remarkably easy.)

Like I said, though, "Moongirl" was a dry run.  Coraline was next—and it's not bad at all.

Coraline Jones is an unhappy child.  She's been moved, by her parents and against her will, into an ancient duplex far from home, which she discovers is otherwise occupied by a bevy of freaks, specifically a pair of has-been actresses, in the basement apartment below, and the potentially-psychotic ringleader of a mouse circus, in the room above.  The crabby landlady seems to rarely visit, which is a plus, but her grandson Wybie visits often, and he proves himself almost nothing but an annoyance to an easily-annoyed young woman.  Worse than anything, though, is how callous Coraline's own mother and father seem—so depressively indifferent toward her, in fact, that even bristling at her presence feels like it costs them a tremendous effort.  They're each knee-deep in drafting a gardening catalogue, you see—this, despite their apparent disdain for dirt, or even for going outdoors—and both seem drained and defeated.  They've thus left Coraline almost entirely to her own meager devices, and, predictably, she's learned to fill the void inside with contempt and condescension and a whole lot of the kind of bitterness that seems cute, now, but only because she's about ten years old.

That's when Coraline finds the door at the base of a wall in their living room, which opens up to the brick wall behind it—except, that is, when it doesn't, and it opens up to an incredible alternate dimension instead, where Coraline finds her Other Mother, vivacious and kind and happily married to her Other Father—and living alongside uniformly superior versions of Coraline's neighbors, too.  Their existences seem devoted to Coraline's happiness in a way that no one in her real life has ever once demonstrated.  The only weird thing about it—or, in strict fairness, the only overtly unsettling thing about it—is that everyone here on the other side, except Coraline, has buttons where their eyes ought to be.  Coraline returns as often as she can, and, soon, she's offered a permanent residence.  The only catch is this: to be a part of their world, she needs to give up her eyes for buttons, too.  Now, it seems like all of this could be a dream—but it definitely is not.

In fact, one of the two or three weaknesses of the film is that it doesn't foreground Coraline's interpretation of it as a dream quite aggressively enough—that is, if it is real, Coraline should be terrified, because she's presumably read at least one book in her short life, and even accounting for the requirements of the genre, Coraline is just slightly too old to be so easily seduced by what is very obviously going to turn out to be an eldritch horror in drag.

I mean, really, even if Coraline's Other Mother is hotter than her real one.

Certainly, I don't imagine that it spoils anything to reveal that much, whether it's eight years later, or whether it got released yesterday.  (A "twist" would've been that the Other World actually was perfect, and Coraline foolishly refused paradise because she was too scared to pay the price.  But that's a different aesop entirely, ain't it?)

Coraline actually begins inside its twisted mirror universe, anyway.  As the opening credits play, we arrive upon a pair of spindly, sharp mechanical hands, refashioning a used doll to look a lot like the young lady we'll soon meet ourselves; and, when they're done, the hands cast their creation out a window and into the starry sky, where it floats uncannily up into the ether, heading out for what can clearly only be a rather sinister business.  It's surely this film's single best scene—it never really gets close to anything this upsetting again until its climax, when the facade of the Other Mother's world falls away, literally, and reveals its fundamental nature as a lethal spider-goddess's web.  But even that might be more of an action-adventure setpiece than it is horror.  That opening, meanwhile, that is horror: you'll sit there and watch the hands tear apart the old used-up doll, before remaking it, and you'll ask, breathlessly, "Wait, is this cartoon rated R?"

Somehow, the answer is "no."

(Naturally, one can hardly overlook that Laika's first feature also begins with the creation of puppet that does its master's bidding.  That's not genius or anything—but it is very appropriate.)

Now, ordinarily, it'd not be in the best interests of any movie for its finest scene to be its first; but Coraline exists in its shadow, and absolutely nothing in it, no matter how whimsical (and some of it is, arguably, too whimsical) can escape it.  Ultimately, it's a fine little kid's parable Coraline tells here—it's so clearly a riff on Lucy Clifford's 1883 tale, about the misbehaving children who wind up with a new, grotesque, and evil mother, that Gaiman has had to own it as an influence.  (For that matter, it's an effective miniature re-do of Gaiman's own A Game of You, his fifth Sandman volume.)  This is 2009, of course, so no kid's movie is going to go as bleak as a piece of moral instruction from the Victorian Age; but the 21st century nature of Gaiman's novella and Selick's adaptation has its upsides, specifically that the temptation presented to our heroine is a lot more recognizable—and the lesson is a bit more nuanced, too.  We all eventually had to learn that parents are real human beings with their own shit going on, after all, and that "love" does not mean "fawning subservience" (no matter how much we might've preferred it did).  Of course, we also all had to learn (though some of us learned too late) that something that seems too good to be true usually is.

Not exactly a new sentiment, even so.  The excellence, as usual, is in the telling, and Coraline is extraordinarily well-told, showing off just what Laika could do.  It utilized hundreds upon hundreds of 3D-printed faceplates to generate an unprecedented range of emotion for a stop-motion cartoon.  (Indeed, Coraline's puppets were unsophisticated by Laika's later standards; why, they only had 208,000 potential facial expressions, as opposed to over a million—which is still more than I have.  But it's also five hundred times as many as Jack Skellington.)  This was matched with an equally staggering attention to detail for everything else, from tiny costuming to tiny set design, down to the animation process itself, which was organized according to the method Laika would use for its next three films (and I believe Selick had used the same process on Nightmare, as well as on the stop-motion parts of James and the Giant Peach).  The way they did it was that each individual sequence was animated by only one person, in order to keep the animation precisely consistent from frame to frame, and perhaps also to keep the animators from going mad when someone interfered with their work—though I imagine madness has always remained a legitimate possibility, considering that with such a meticulous craft they only ever manage to crank out around three to four seconds of finished footage per week.

Also, they have to look at this all day.

But this is the part where I should mention that Laika has never actually made anything like a fully stop-motion film, for CGI is a fact of life in every frame.  It's CGI that removes the seams joining the puppets' faceplates, it's CGI that composites puppets together, in focus, when the cameras can't, it's CGI that provides the backdrops, and it's CGI that occasionally stands up to do its duty when stop-motion just can't accomplish a particular effect.  Even so, Coraline's most spectacular moments are, as far as I can tell, mind-blowing examples of a century-old art (which, obviously, makes them all the more mind-blowing), like that aforementioned mouse circus, which doesn't even seem like it ought to be possible.  Of course, it's not, but it strikes you that it might be—because it is, at least, almost real.

In the most basic terms, I suppose, Coraline is a formally simple work—but its simplicity is surely deceptive as to the technical skill involved in making the Other World pop like a funhouse, in contrast to the gray Pacific Northwestness of Coraline's crappy real world, where it's constantly raining and everyone looks like they'll be dead before morning (that is, if they didn't already die last night).  In this respect, Coraline's also deceptive in its cleverness: the warped angles and exaggerated decay so typical of Selick's work are the inherent qualities of our world, rather than the Other Mother's well-kept hearth—her handcrafted world feels like heaven because the real one looks like hell.  And that's the impression we get, despite our suspicions, despite the fact that it's still creepy as anything, until the film reaches nearer to its climax, and Coraline's horrific opening is finally and fully paid off.  (It's worth noting that Selick served, most righteously, as his own production designer on Coraline.)

But then, that pay-off is also where Coraline falters a little, and its third act can be boiled down to Coraline undertaking a fetch quest to save some souls, and it's somehow even more arbitrary than it already needs to be, thanks to a talisman Coraline acquired in the real world, which guides her without any significant surplus of effort or intelligence from our heroine—though the crumbling tableaux she has to fight her way through are, at least, pleasantly scary.

Regardless, when she does find what she's looking for, you're surprised, because what she's looking for is strictly icky, but it's represented here by what amounts to video game maguffins.  (Considering that what she's looking for always come in pairs, their stand-ins don't even make especially good symbols.)  It's an odd choice for Selick, who hadn't shied away from such things in the past, and doesn't even shy away from the same kind of thing here—once the Other Mother drops the pretense of playing fair with poor Coraline, the movie retrenches very firmly into horror, up to and including a reasonably well-done "not dead yet!" gag, straight out of a slasher flick.  But you can't get too mad at any movie that so clearly has the goods everywhere else.  It's got heart, Coraline does; and it sure as hell's got mood.  Those aren't things you can just dismiss due to a few minor screenplay problems.

Selick and Gaiman were, in the end, a one-off.  Selick reunited with Disney (via Pixar), and they apparently locked him away in a dungeon, considering he's done practically nothing since; and Laika hasn't gotten the chance to adapt Gaiman again, either.  (It's the perfect shame that there's no possible chance that they'd ever get to do Sandman; yet I can scarcely imagine the inevitable live-action movie we'll eventually wind up with will capture the essence of the Dreaming quite so well as I believe Laika would.)

Nevertheless, both men certainly left their indelible stamp.  It wouldn't be till Laika's fourth feature that they even marginally escaped the shadow of Selick, whose glibly gross aesthetic and gothy mood would dominate their next two features completely—and even though I'm sure Selick hates being confused with his one-time producer, let's just skip the hairsplitting and call it what it is: "Burtonesque."  Meanwhile, Laika would never escape Gaiman's influence at all.  And yet, going by their track record, even if it isn't entirely spotless, I won't mind if they keep working in that particular niche forever.

Score, "Moongirl": 5/10
Score, Coraline: 8/10

No comments:

Post a Comment