“Coraline” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”, two of the animated features I received this year from Hollywood PR departments, were outstanding. The other, titled “9” after the eponymous main character, a robot so numbered, was a total mess. I nominated “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” for best animated feature of 2009, a choice that my NYFCO colleagues agreed with. If I had received “Coraline” in time to view before the December meeting, I might have named it instead since it was so visually striking and psychologically complex. In any case, if you have children or feel like a child yourself, I urge you to rent “Coraline” from Netflix and look for “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” which should be available before long.
“Coraline” is the name of the main character, a preteen girl who is alienated from her parents. In some ways, the dysfunctional relationship evokes that of the family in “Beetlejuice”, even with a haunted house thrown into the mix. Coraline discovers that a doorway in her house leads to a parallel universe version of her reality-based house, equipped with an alternative mother and father who look and sound exactly like her own but cater to her every whim and make her feel special.
The doorway, which functions more or less in the same way as the wardrobe closet in “The Chronicles of Narnia”, allows her to spend time with her surrogate parents and then to return each night to her own bed. And each time that she returns to the real world, the more disappointed she becomes in that reality. Like the teenaged girl in “Beetlejuice”, Coraline seems poised to leave the real world behind her and join the world of the spirits.
That opportunity presents itself one day when her alternative mother explains that she can remain with her permanently if she only does one thing, namely to replace her real eyes with sewn-on buttons. If her new adopted haunted home has all the allure of a dollhouse, why would she then object to being turned into a doll?
After she refuses the offer, her new mother morphs into a demon and takes her real parents hostage. The remainder of the film consists of a struggle to free her parents as well as the souls of children who after accepting the demon’s offer were turned into ghost/toys with button eyes. The prevailing mood is very close to that of “Pan’s Labyrinth” with the same kind of visually arresting imagery and odd mixture of menace and wonder.
“Coraline” is based on a young adult novel by Neil Gaiman, an interesting character based on the evidence of his biography at his website. We learn:
Gaiman was the creator/writer of monthly cult DC Comics horror-weird series, Sandman, which won nine Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, including the award for best writer four times, and three Harvey Awards. Sandman #19 took the 1991 World Fantasy Award for best short story, making it the first comic ever to be awarded a literary award. Norman Mailer said of Sandman: “Along with all else, Sandman is a comic strip for intellectuals, and I say it’s about time.”
Directed by Wes Anderson, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” is the tale of a recidivist fox who cannot give up the life of stealing chickens even as his wife pressures him to go straight. In a perfect casting touch, the voice of Mr. Fox is done by George Clooney who is basically reprising the role he played in the Danny Oceans movies directed by Steven Soderbergh.
The movie has the generally madcap character of a Bug Bunny cartoon with three human chicken farmers doing everything they can to capture the fox and destroy his lair. Eventually the vendetta grows to include all of the local animals who become willy-nilly linked to the fox. Despised by the farmers as much as any jihadist is by the Pentagon, they only seek a return to normalcy. It is understandable that they would resent the fox whose appetite for chickens has brought down the farmer’s wrath on their heads.
Both “Coraline” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” rely on “stop motion”, a technique that uses actual physical objects being moved in small increments while being filmed. Director Wes Anderson first used it in portions of “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”, a film I have not seen.
One of the refreshing things about this movie is its tendency to avoid moralizing, a fault of the Disney and Pixar films. Indeed, the unabashed desire of the fox to kill and eat chickens almost seems like a nose-thumbing exercise directed against animal rights advocates. The movie has a kind of anarchistic joie d’vivre that will remind you of the Chuck Jones Warner Brothers movies of the past. All in all, a pure delight.
“The Fantastic Mr. Fox” is based on a children’s novel by Roald Dahl who died in 1990. Dahl also wrote “James and the Giant Peach” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, two children’s stories adapted for the screen. He also wrote many works geared to adults, including a short story called “The Smoker” that I first encountered as an adaptation on the Alfred Hitchcock television show in 1960. It was one of the most chilling dramas I ever saw on this classic series.
“The Smoker” involves a bet between two men who meet each other at a Caribbean island resort hotel, one of whom—the smoker—has just lit a cigarette with his Zippo lighter at the poolside. The other man makes him an offer. If he can successfully light the Zippo 10 times in a row, he will give him his Cadillac convertible that is parked in the hotel’s lot. (Remember, it is 1960 when such cars still had charisma.) And what happens if he fails? Simple. He has to forfeit a finger. The two retreat to the Cadillac owner’s hotel room where the Zippo owner’s hand is tied to a table. With the other hand, he begins to use the Zippo as the other man stands over him with a meat cleaver. When he is just about to make the 10th attempt, a woman bursts into the room and yells out, “Stop this immediately. My brother is insane. He makes these bets but has nothing of value to relinquish if he loses. That Cadillac in the parking lot, which I imagine he used in the bet, does not belong to him. It belongs to me.” The story ends with the camera panning in on her left hand, which is missing three fingers.
There’s not much to say about “9”, except that it is heavily derivative of the Terminator and Matrix series as well as other post-apocalyptic tales in which malevolent and intelligent machines have taken over the world.
Unlike these other stories, there are no human beings left in “9”. All you have are the robots, who are human-like in their hopes and fears, and the killer machines. The movie begins with “9” being saved from destruction by “2”, who eventually is captured himself.
I wish I could tell you more about the robot characters, who we are supposed to identify with, but the screenwriter has failed to develop them. Indeed, there is very little dialog in the movie which is devoted almost exclusively to set pieces involving death-ray emitting killer machines versus the cute little robots about whom we know nearly nothing. It is a little bit like watching a love movie involving toasters.