Child’s Play?

By Hugh Lilly

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Coraline, directed by Henry Selick

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Gake no ue no Ponyo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki

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Lewis Carroll’s “Alice In Wonderland” has inspired myriad literary, filmic and stage adaptations. It’s also inspired songs like Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”—and music videos, like Tom Petty’s undeniably awesome “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” featuring numerous drug allusions and Petty atop a ludicrously enormous mushroom. Tim Burton’s newest film, due to be released early next year, follows Alice, now 19, back down the rabbit hole to the magical, enchanted world Carroll created more than a hundred and forty years ago. The science-fiction author Neil Gaiman must have had “Alice” in mind when he wrote “Coraline,” his fantasy-horror novella that follows a young girl’s adventures as she discovers a secret, alternate world—complete with talking cat in a (dead) tree—at the other end of a tunnel accessed through a tiny door. Continuing the adaptation trend, Stephin Merritt of the band The Magnetic Fields has written the music for a Broadway version of Gaiman’s story which opened earlier this year.

Henry Selick, the director of Tim Burton’s magical The Nightmare Before Christmas, is a master in the art of stop-motion filmmaking. Aside from that film, Selick directed James and the Giant Peach and animated the stop-motion seahorses and other creatures in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. He also has assisted on many other animation and stop-motion pictures since the early ’80s. Selick’s latest film is a lively stop-motion adaptation of Gaiman’s novella, shot in 3-D.

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The story follows the titular character, a twelve-year-old girl, gratingly-voiced by Dakota Fanning. Her workaholic parents—voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman—who’ve just moved into a new, isolated old house, practically ignore her. So she goes to find her own fun and meets ‘Wybie’—a wild-eyed boy who rides around on a souped-up BMX bike with ihs mangy cat seeking out trouble. Her neighbours, Mr. Bobinsky—a heavily-accented acrobatic Russian man (voiced by Ian McShane from TV’s Deadwood) with a penchant for training mice for a miniature circus—and, downstairs, a duo of ex-theatre actresses: Ms. Spink and Ms. Forcible, voiced by French and Saunders. Keith David, perhaps best known for his voice work and small roles in films such as Requiem for a Dream, Reality Bites and Platoon, voices the aforementioned anthropomorphised feline.

While exploring the new house one day, Coraline discovers a small door covered up by wallpaper. She nags her mother for the key, and, in the dead of night, opens the door. At the other end of a long, ominously-glowing paper lampshade-like tunnel she finds an alternate universe peopled by imitations of her parents and neighbours. This new world is wonderful, from Coraline’s point of view: the inhabitants are the opposite of those in Coraline’s normal life. Her ‘other’ parents are attentive and interesting to talk to—her ‘other’ mother is a great cook and her ‘other’ father, instead of being a distant writer, is a composer and gardener. There’s one important distinction, though: everyone in this other world has buttons for eyes, and they’re trying to convince her to let them sew big black buttons in her eye sockets too, so she can fit in and be “just like everyone else”.

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The music, by composer Bruno Coulais and the experimental pop group They Might Be Giants, is both spritely and melancholic—apparently TMBG wrote ten songs for the film and were set to use almost all of them when Selick and the other filmmakers opted for a darker soundscape; Coulais’ music has an ethereal, slightly eastern tone and makes certain scenes a little too creepy. The visuals are fantastic—though the 3-D lends little of value to the picture; see it in a regular projection if possible—and there are homages to art (Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is terrifically riffed-upon toward the end) and to Shakespeare: Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man!” monologue is used in a terrific theatre performance by the ‘other’ downstairs neighbours. Coraline is about as fantastic and vivid as kids could hope for, and the world around the title character almost outshines that of her predecessor, the cemetery-dwelling chanteur Jake Skellington.

Another filmmaker who trades in wonder, fantasy and child-like amazement is the Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki. His tenth film for the animation studio Ghibli is Gake no ue no PonyoPonyo on the Cliff by the Sea. After the Oscar-winning success of films like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle—not to mention a gigantic body of work dating from the early ’70s—it is somewhat of a disappointment.

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Although stylistically the film retains that “classic Miyazaki look and feel,” so-to-speak, the story, written by the director himself, is too simplistic to appeal to anyone but very small children. Of course all his films are directed at kids, but there’s usually something in many of them to entertain older viewers. The story follows Sōsuke, a five-year-old boy who finds a goldfish washed up on the shore; he takes her home and names her Ponyo. A kind of cat-and-mouse game ensues between Sōsuke and the underwater overlord who gave ‘birth’ to Ponyo. This is (probably) entertaining for small children, but there’s nothing much here for adult animation fans, unlike the (comparatively) elegant plots of say, Howl’s or Castle in the Sky.

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Ponyo enjoyed the widest-local release for any domestic film to date—481 screens on July 19, 2008—and has Studio Ghibli’s highest-grossing opening-month figures thus far. Even with its faults the film is visually fantastic, and Miyazaki’s under-recognised composer, Joe Hisaishi, has here created a magnificent score that evokes Stravinsky and Wagner’s Die Walküre—indeed, the story partially alludes to that opera. Overall, though, Ponyo disappoints on the most basic level: storytelling.

Coraline is the best animated film of the year so far, and should easily entertain young and old alike. Ponyo, on the other hand, would perhaps be better left to the kids.

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Coraline is in theatres now.

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Ponyo screened recently at the New Zealand International Film Festivals. The American overdub, voiced variously by Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Lily Tomlin, Tina Fey, Noah (brother of Miley) Cyrus, and one of the less-annoying Jonases, was released last week in the US and will begin shipping out to other markets next month; those wanting to hear the film in its original Japanese may have to wait for the DVD.

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