The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Coraline/ParaNorman

The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing.  This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.

In 1964 a former track runner and aspiring entrepreneur from Oregon named Phillip Knight was in Kobe Japan while on a post college trip around the world and while there he discovered a line of running shoes made by the Onitsuka Tiger company that so impressed him that he went out on a limb and bought distribution rights for these sneakers for the Western United States.  He then went home and showed the shoes to his old University of Oregon track coach, Bill Bowerman, who offered to join together with Knight to sell them and they eventually formed a company called Blue Ribbon Sports.  Long story short, the company worked out pretty well for them.  By 1971 they started designing and manufacturing their own sneakers and changed their name to Nike, Inc.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Why am I talking about a sneaker company?  Well, decades later Phillip Knight met another Oregonian businessman, an animator named Will Vinton who had a small but growing animation studio.  This studio was probably most famous for having done work on the movie Return to Oz and for making the Fox TV series “The PJs.”  Vinton needed a new investor and that’s where Phillip Knight came in.  Knight’s son Travis was an aspiring animator and it seems like getting him a job was a large motivating factor in him making an investment in the company.  Will Vinton Studios continued to struggle though and eventually Knight purchased the studio outright, placed Travis Knight on the board, had Vinton himself leave the company (with a severance package), and rebranded it as Laika animation.

So, we’ve got a rich entrepreneur buying a company for his son and placing him at its head out of sheer nepotism and pushing out the artist who started it.  That’s not exactly the most inspiring origin story for an animation studio and poetic justice would probably demand that the company’s output would be soulless product devoid of artistic merit, but that isn’t what ended up happening at all.  Instead, Laika has become something of a specialist in making “alternative family films.”  They use stop motion to make films that are still more or less for families but which are a little edgier and more offbeat than what gets made even in quality animation studios like Pixar.  That’s not to say that they’re making movies that are wildly transgressive or uncommercial, they do get wide releases after all, but it is telling that they’re distributed by Universal’s Focus Features imprint rather than the parent company.  Their films have so far had a creepier, more horror tinged tone, and that tone was established by their breakout first feature: Coraline.

Coraline (2009)

For their debut feature, Laika turned to two people with an established track record in dark fantasy: Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman.  Selick is an animation pro most famous for being the director of the Tim Burton produced The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. However he was also responsible for the film Monkeybone which was a pretty big flop and could have ended his career as the director of feature length films.  He spent most of the 2000s in the wilderness; he did the practical effects work on Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou in 2004 and in 2005 he met up with Laika and directed their Annie nominated CGI short film “Moongirl.”  The collaboration seemed to work out and for their first feature film Laika and Selick decided to adapt Neil Gaiman’s 2002 young adult novel “Coraline.” Gaiman is of course a pretty ubiquitous name in the world of dark fantasy and even today is perhaps best known as the creator of the “mature readers” comic book series “The Sandman.”  Some of his work is meant for children, some is made squarely for adults, but everything he does maintains a certain sense of dark whimsy and if the film is any indication that’s certainly true about “Coraline.”

Coraline came out in 2009, a year that I’ve talked about a lot over the course of this series.  It was easily the biggest year for “mature” family films like this and Fantastic Mr. Fox and Up and so on and so forth.  The film from that year that it reminds me of the most is probably actually Where the Wild Things Are in that both films are about attention-starved little kids who need to escape to a fantasy world because their parents don’t want to entertain them.  Both films are perhaps playing off of Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth, which did something similar within more R-rated trappings and each film does so with different levels of ambiguity.  I interpret the fantastical elements of Where the Wild Things to be entirely within the child’s imagination for example while I think Pan’s Labyrinth is supposed to be pretty ambiguous.  I think Coraline, by contrast, is supposed to be taken literally for the most part but like the other two movies you can kind of see how a similar adventure could fill a void that the protagonist needs at this point in her life.

Come to think about it, the movie is also kind of similar to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.  Both films have their child protagonists trying to save their parents, who’ve been captured by a malevolent force, and both are forced to explore a strange parallel world filled with wonders and terrors.  However, all this talk of other movies perhaps makes the film sound more derivative than it really is.  In fact, this is a pretty damn creative movie by family film standards.  The film doesn’t use stereotypical Halloween ghouls (vampires, witches, ghosts, etc.) and instead gives us an abstract demon with a unique looks and modus operandi which never quite loses its mystery.  The film uses dollhouses as a motif and manages to use the image of people who’ve had their eyes replaced with buttons to good effect.

In general, the film doesn’t feel much like The Nightmare Before Cristmas at all.  That film tried to feel like a funhouse rollercoaster with its songs and scattershot horror ideas, while Coraline is significantly more focused and subdued.  The character models look relatively realistic by stop-motion standards and, at least while the film is in the real world, and it’s a lot more relatable than the fantastical realms of Tim Burton’s stop-motion films. Selick seems to have grown a lot as a filmmaker in the nearly twenty years since he made TNBC; he’s developed an eye for interesting tilted camera angles and uses them judiciously and to good effect.  At times the film does seem to break the immersion with an off choice here or there.  For instance, there’s a character named Mr. Bobinsky who seems completely out of place, firstly because he’s a large personality and secondly because he’s inexplicably blue.  For the most part though, the film has a very good grasp of tone and rarely makes stupid mistakes to dumb things down for the audience.

One thing that did sort of disappoint me about the film was actually the character of Coraline.  From the film’s advertising I’d kind of gotten the impression that Coraline was something like twelve or thirteen years old, but she was actually more like eight or nine, and that makes a pretty big difference.  Frankly, she sort of seemed like a brat.  I did not particularly like Dakota Fanning’s voice performance in the film and I couldn’t really relate to the character’s general immaturity and gullibility.  When the alternate world presents itself, we as an audience are already well aware that it’s evil and it’s a little frustrating that the character doesn’t see through the façade.  Still, this is less of a problem during the second half of the film after the villain has presented herself and is in full-on witch mode.  It’s at that point where the film moves from being merely unsettling to being what is about as creepy as it gets in a PG rated animated film.

I don’t know that I’d call Coraline “great” by any means, but it did impress me a lot more than most family movies and I totally see why it stood out as much as it did when it came out.  Like a lot of movies, it attempts to be a modern fairy tale and does it in a very smart and highly literate way.  There’s a creativity to it that’s all too often lacking in family films and its execution feels fascinatingly uncompromising.  This is not the kind of movie you make when you’re trying to set your studio up as the next Dreamworks or Pixar, it’s the kind of movie you make when you’re trying to become the next Studio Ghibli.  Laika clearly wants to carve out and dominate a niche and Coraline was the perfect calling card to build that niche.  If I had seen this when I was a kid I probably would have loved it, and I suspect there’s a whole cadre of fourteen year olds around today who saw this when they were nine and will one day be very nostalgic for it.

ParaNorman (2012)

Coraline made a pretty big splash in 2009, but I never really heard the word “Laika” when people were discussing it.  I certainly heard “Henry Selick” and occasionally I heard “Neil Gaiman,” but I think most people just saw “Laika” as just another logo in front of a movie.  They would have to forge their own identity soon though because they weren’t able to renegotiate Henry Selick’s contract and after the release of Coraline he parted ways with the studio.  For their next project they turned to a pair of co-directors named Sam Fell and Chris Butler.  Butler (who also wrote the screenplay) was a storyboard artist on Coraline and on Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride while Fell was perhaps best known for his work with Aardman Animation where he directed Flushed Away.  The movie they (along with Arianne Sutner and Stephen Stone, who have “story by” credits) came up with is another horror-tinged family film called ParaNorman.

Initially ParaNorman comes off as a sort of lighthearted take on The Sixth Sense because it’s about a young boy named Norman who has the power to see ghosts roaming around in the world.  Unlike The Sixth Sense’s Cole, Norman more or less doesn’t seem all that disturbed by this power even though it occasionally makes him a bit of an outcast with his family and among his peers.  He’s a bit older than Coraline was and is perhaps a bit more aware of the situations he’s facing even though he does occasionally screw up here and there as well.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the supporting characters though.  I’ve come to find that animation generally tends to lean towards stereotypes more often than live action films, possibly because actors have the power to inject thinly drawn characters with more humanity when they’re on set, and ParaNorman is not an exception to this rule.  The supporting characters are: a blonde cheerleader who talks like a valley-girl, an overweight nerdy kid, a schoolyard bully, and a dim jock.  Here and there each of these characters is given one (and usually only one) moment or trait that differentiates them from the stereotype they represent, but I don’t think that’s really enough.

I’ve called both Coraline and ParaNorman “horror tinged,” but they go about it in very different ways.  Coraline was more of a dark fantasy story than a traditional horror film and the demon at the heart of all the trouble manifested itself in unconventional but still somewhat disturbing ways.  By contrast the “horror” in ParaNorman is more like a kid-friendly version of traditional horror movie devices like ghosts and zombies.  Fell and Butler clearly know their horror movies as evidenced by the little references that pepper the movie (a dude wearing a hockey mask here, a Halloween ringtone there, etc.) and one could intuit that the fact that Norman seems to spend his days watching old zombie movies on VHS is an autobiographical touch on their part.  As family films go this is slightly more gruesome than I might have expected.  The zombies really do look like rotting corpses and there’s even a scene where a zombie is run over by a car and has his head come off.  I feel like Laika was nervous that they may have gone “too far” with some of it so the film has a lot of comedy in it as well, some of it rather questionable.  I don’t know that a scene about taking a book from a dead man’s hands needed to be a slapstick sequence and I also don’t think the sight of villagers with torches and guns needed to be a joke given the themes at hand either.

It is finally revealed that the spooy goings on are the result of an accused witch getting revenge on the town that executed her in the 15th Century.  As such, the film sort of falls into the same trap that a lot of movies fall into when they’re inspired by the Salem witch trials which is that it wants to have its cake and eat it too.  It wants the trials to be an act of irrational injustice, but it also wants there to be a real witch, and that sort of invalidates the former point because these trials seem a lot less unjust if there actually are witches on trial.  The film tries to sidestep by suggesting that this magic this girl was on trial for using wasn’t actually witchcraft so much as it was some sort of inherited psychic power they didn’t understand, but that doesn’t explain what the other witches were on trial for.  Anyway, the film is very clearly trying to impart a message about intolerance and revenge, and it makes this incredibly clear in its final act when expresses this moral through on-the-nose speechifying on the part of the protagonist.  It’s kind of a lazy and overly direct way to get the point across and it also generally feels unearned because we’re given no indication earlier on that Norman has this level of maturity and it doesn’t really feel like something that develops over the course of the film.

On a technical level, ParaNorman is certainly a step forward for Laika.  The sets are a lot more elaborate, the characters look pretty smooth (even if the models are probably more exaggerated than they needed to be, and the protruding ears are just weird), and there’s generally just a lot more movie to be found in the production values.  But on an artistic level, I think it’s a step backwards.  While Coraline felt like an uncompromising and moody piece, ParaNorman just kind of feels like a typical animated family film in a number of ways.  Its humor, its moralizing, its stock characters, its basic story structure, it all skews pretty close to the basic 2000s animated film formula that I’ve been noticing as this series goes on.  It still executes pretty well and the stop-motion visuals are well done, but it just doesn’t feel special in the way that Coraline did.

In Conclusion

With Pixar in decline, Dreamworks still being Dreamworks whenever they aren’t making movies about Dragons, and even Studio Ghibli looking like it’s going to struggle for a while, Laika is looking like one of the few sources of hope amongst those wanting to see artistic family films.  That said I’m kind of worried about them.  I thought Coraline was clearly the better of their two movies and audiences seemed to feel the same way given that ParaNorman did not end up making as much money as Coraline did.  That may partly be because ParaNorman came out at roughly the same time that another horror-tinged stop-motion family film, Tim Burton’s Frankenweeie, came out which sort of led the two movies to sort of cannibalize each other but I think it has just as much to do with Coraline being more of a must-see than ParaNorman.  Laika has another movie out right now as of this writing called The Box-Trolls and it seems to be catching on with the public even less, so I hope we’re not just getting diminishing returns from this studio.  Still, I think they’ve earned some benefit of the doubt and I do plan to keep an eye on whatever they do next.

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