Thursday, January 29, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Wonderful ...

So, finally something upbeat to talk about:

Yesterday evening Debbie and I attended a screener of Coraline.

As you probably know, if you’re a fan of Neil Gaiman’s, Coraline is a movie based on his book. But to leave it at that is to do it a huge injustice. Because Coraline is much more than that.

Coraline is a work of wonder.

First off -- well, first off, there’s Neil’s book. Which I’m not going to comment on, for two reasons -- one, because you know it’s good, and two, because (I blush to admit) it’s one of the few ones of his I haven’t read. Which was good, in a way, because it allowed me to see the film without any preconceptions. And so should you. So -- onward.

Pardon me whilst I meander a bit -- after all, it's my blog ...

One of my earlier memories is seeing an Anaglyph showing of The Creature From the Black Lagoon. I remember putting on the glasses with the red and blue lenses, and I remember that petrified claw jutting out of the screen and seemingly right into my lap, accompanied by that DUH-DUH-DAHHH!! liet-motif. Scared the crap out of me.

Despite my initial reaction, however, I wasn’t all that impressed with the 3D process. I was around five or six, so my criticisms of it had little to do with the technology; I just remember that it gave me a bitch of a headache, and the glasses didn’t fit well over my own horn-rims and kept falling off. My feelings weren’t shared by the majority of the movie-going public, because 3D was initially a big hit. Even so, despite a few major releases such as The Robe and Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder, the 3D of the Fifties was largely a gimmick, used to shore up shaky stories and, as such, relegated mostly to cinematic fringes such as cheap westerns, Three Stooges shorts and sci-fi and horror debacles like Robot Monster and Cat Women Of the Moon. All in all, the Anaglyph process turned out to be the fad that most studios had predicted “Talkies” would be back in the Twenties.

There was a big revival of the format once IMAX hit it big (and I mean big) in the Eighties. Despite an improved digital process, the main thing lacking was (surprise!) a distinct lack of story and attempts to over-compensate by jabbing things wildly at the camera. Anyone who went to see Jaws 3D for the story over the sharks coming out of the screen was possessed of an optimism that made Pollyanna look jaded.

But now, finally, I’m a believer, because here is a film in which the 3D is both damn near flawless and, mirable dictu, is used in service of the story. Henry Selick (who, despite the producer’s possessory credit on Tim Burton’s the Nightmare Before Christmas, really directed that movie) has done a marvelous job of crafting a sense of steadily rising menace into the film (which isn’t as easy as it might seem, in a work which smacks so heavily of magical realism). But he also fills it, ultimately, with hope and redemption. And one of the things that impressed me the most is that he continually surprised me.

I’m not that easy to surprise. I have a good sense of story, and I can usually call a plot twist or a logic flaw a mile away. I’m not bragging here; it sorta came with the package. When you’ve written as much film as I have, it becomes instinct. I called the ending of The Sixth Sense about ten minutes in, for example. And my daughter still hasn’t forgiven me (it’s going on ten years, now) for pointing out that The Wizard Of Oz has an unhappy ending. (Go ahead. Guess.)

So when I say he surprised me, not once but several times, in the plot’s twists and turns, that’s not a trivial compliment.

If there’s one thing that makes me hesitant about over-praising the film’s extraordinary 3D effects, it’s that I fear it’ll take away from the even more extraordinary animation effects. The sad, sad thing is that some viewers will dismiss the look of the movie as CGI. While some computer work was used, mostly for clean-up, the film was created using a technique almost as old as film itself: model animation. That’s the art (and never was a mot more bon) of moving articulated miniatures on tabletop sets, frame by frame.

(NOTE: not to get overly-picayune here, but, although I’ve heard the technique used in Coraline referred to as stop-motion animation -- the method Willis O’Brien used to bring King Kong to life, and which Ray Harryhausen used to bring practically everything else to life -- I have my doubts. It looked much more to me like replacement animation -- a similar technique in which different parts and poses of the puppet are cycled through a scene. The same technique, essentially, but it results in quite a different and more life-like overall look. It was made famous by the producer George Pal with his Puppetoons series back in the Thirties. And before you ask -- no it’s not the same as claymation, which is the stuff Aardvark does so brilliantly in the Wallace and Gromit films. End of incredibly fanboy-esque divertissement.)

So: Coraline. See it. With the polarized glasses. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll at least have a cool pair of shades. I mean it. Go, sit in a theater in the dark, and marvel at a world in which, among many other wonders, vampire Scottie dogs kamikaze your head. This movie does what so many others try to do and fall short in the attempts -- it transports you.

A fine business, in my opinion.


Dave Bessom said...

Gotta ask... The Wizard of Oz? It's been a while since I've seen it, but I don't recall the ending being un-happy. Was there a tragic grain silo explosion hidden after the credits?

Menduir said...

Or was it the impending death of Toto, assuming the old battleaxe also survived the tornado and returned to have the dog destroyed?

Or are you being deeper than that, referring to something like Dorothy's lost dreams, her acceptance of the ordinary life in Kansas, as a sadness?

Or something else entirely? (Admittedly, it's been a few years since I last saw this movie, because I read the book and hated the movie even more after I read the original story.)

~ Jas.

Michael said...

You asked for it ...

Miss Almira Gulch still has that court order to have Toto put down.