Rather astonished to find Isle of Dogs defeat my expectations and become one of my least favorite Wes Andersons, if not the least.
Anderson is one of my absolute favorite filmmakers (I know, I know, join the club), but like a lot of my faves, I have significant reservations. It’s no great insight to point out that all of his films are male-centric, all with male protagonists, all with predominantly male casts, and all featuring at best one primary female supporting character.
He’s hardly unique in this respect, so it’s unfair to single him out when there are far more egregious examples (like, for example, almost every director ever). But it feels especially overt in the context of a fantasy fable, where anything goes. Why on earth did this have to be such a Snausage fest?
With a little effort, I count maybe five speaking female characters from memory. Of those, two are — sorry for this, but quite literally — bitches bred to be pretty or bear litters. Interpreter Nelson may share narration duties, but she merely translates the words of other male characters. Yoko-ono is practically mute. That leaves Tracy — about whom I barely know where to begin. At a time when pop culture is calling for greater representation of asian characters in film, the best I can say about her is thank goodness she wasn’t a Japanese character voiced by post-Ghost-in-the-Shell Scarlett Johansson.
Sorry to go on and on about the lack of female representation in an animated dog movie, but I just cannot overlook here what I could previously accept as a given with Anderson. It was worth it for his singular visual style and quirks, and he would occasional feature complex female characters like Margot, Suzy, and Miss Cross amidst all the boys. In Rushmore, Miss Cross is the love object of a precocious but immature boy emulating his notions of adulthood, and his inappropriate crush is part of the point. She is thankfully written and acted as far more than a token, but there’s no equivalently interesting female character in Isle of Dogs, and what’s the excuse? Why does the little pilot have to be boy? Why does the entire pack of dogs have to be male? It’s just so frustrating.
I’m also deducting points for another of my common movie complaints: when one of the most visually-oriented mediums that humanity has ever created — animation — is misapplied to primarily verbal works. The worst example of this in my mind is Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, throughout most of which I could not fathom why the painstaking process of animation was applied to stationary talking heads. Although the animation craft on display in Isle of Dogs is often extraordinarily wonderful, the screenplay is so verbose and overwritten that it often must halt to allow for a few pages of dialogue. Stop motion becomes stopped motion.
Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir could easily be filed away under any or all of the following genres: documentary, autobiography, memoir, journalism, and nonfiction. If there’s one thing all of these have in common, it’s that none make for natural cartoons. The exception that proves the rule is Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which began life as a pair of graphic novels before being adapted into an animated feature film. Waltz With Bashir takes the opposite route, starting as a film and ending up as a book. Could animated versions of Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale be far behind?
Folman has lost his memories of a key experience during his service in the Israel Defense Forces during the 1982 war in Lebanon. A conversation with a friend sparks a fragment of memory involving the Sabra and Shatila massacre. The Israeli Defense Force surrounded Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, but stood by as the Phalangists, a Christian Lebanese militia, entered and massacred a still unknown number of Palestinian civilians. Was he really there, as he now seems to recollect? Did he have anything to do with it?
Folman speaks of memory as “something stored in my system,” as if his brain were merely a computer, disassociated from any culpability in the massacre. He merely witnessed it, but it was enough for him to subconsciously erase his memories over the intervening years. He seeks out old comrades in the search of someone else who served with him and may help fill in the blanks in his memory. Like a detective story, the search for clues provides a useful storytelling device while providing an episodic narrative structure.
The title refers to a fellow soldier that madly waltzed with a machine gun while surrounded on all sides by Lebanese fighters. “Bashir” is Bashir Gemayel, the assassinated Phalangist commander lionized by Lebanese, and a celebrity on a scale that one Israeli likens to how he felt about David Bowie.
Folman is an artist as well as a filmmaker; at one point he asks one of his old friends if it’s OK to sketch his family during their interview. His visual sense manifests in Waltz With Bashir’s stunning images, composition, and color. Like Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, it features stiff, simplified characters atop fully-rendered 3D environments. Human faces are crudely rendered with small looped expressions, when not totally still (note that the 2D vector animation is not the same technique used in Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly). They contrast sharply with the fluid movement of the detailed, complexly lit vehicles, backgrounds, and weapons. If such stylized human figures were a deliberate artistic choice, what is to be gained? A few possible explanations:
As recent CGI movies like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, and Beowulf have proven to their detriment, the uncanny valley (the point at which a simulation of a human becomes almost, but not quite, realistic and thus creeps audiences out) is a very real problem facing animators as technology progresses. All three of these are technological marvels, but the human characters are still just one step away from dead-eyed zombies.
In the most practical sense, animation is useful to create images of historical events where no cameras were present. Folman does recount seeing journalist Ron Ben-Yishai boldly film the aforementioned firefight in which his friend had his machine-gun-waltz with Bashir, so perhaps some actual footage existed for reference.
The dreamlike unreality of animation plays into Folman’s theme of the mutability of memory.
Like Isao Takahata’s stunning Grave of Fireflies, animation makes it slightly easier to watch painful images. Takahata’s emotionally draining film involved a little girl slowly starving to death after the World War II firebombing of Japan, and Waltz With Bashir features such images as a field full of dying horses and the corpse of a child buried in rubble. The end of the film snatches away this distancing technique; we finally see archival footage of the massacre’s aftermath.
Is it fair to criticize the film for taking the Israeli point of view in a story about the Sabra and Shatila massacre? Save for one woman that appears in the actual footage seen at the end, Palestinians literally don’t have a voice in the film. But neither, for that matter, do the Phalangists. In the case of this historical event, Israelis were passive bystanders, neither victims nor oppressors. If to bluntly ask what Waltz With Bashir is for, it does three things: First, it’s a meditation upon the complexity and unreliability of human memory. Second, it’s an act of journalism; returning the Sabra and Shatila Massacre to the public consciousness. Third, it’s one man’s personal coming to terms with his past.
After writing and directing three Star Wars prequels between 1999-2005, it’s easy to forget that back in the 1980s, series godfather George Lucas opted out of directing Episodes IV: The Empire Strikes Back and V: Return of the Jedi. Now Lucas appears once again to be ceding control over his most famous baby. He’s back to shepherding along splinter projects like The Clone Wars from the more aloof role of Executive Producer.
For anyone else confused, as I certainly was, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a feature-film sequel to the 2003-2005 Cartoon Network television series “Star Wars: Clone Wars,” in turn followed by a second series with the same name as the movie. Got that? There are much bigger differences than swapping a colon for a definitive article, starting with the visual look itself. The best thing about the original series was its bold, striking visual style, realized in a hand-drawn line-art look similar to Genndy Tartakovsky’s previous show Samurai Jack. From what little I understand of the process, CGI animation created in 3D can still be rendered in a flat 2D style, giving it the look of traditional hand-drawn cell animation. So the characters in the original at least appeared hand-drawn even though they almost certainly weren’t.
However, the feature film sequel looks like director Dave Filoni opted to skip that step and render the characters with full 3D shading. The result resembles a rough animatic or a throwaway videogame cut scene. Filoni gets kudos for not aiming for photorealism, which becomes very creepy when approaching the uncanny valley – the point where animated characters look almost, but not quite, like real humans. Look with fear upon the nightmarish zombie horrorshows Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, and Beowulf (the latter being a huge step forward, but still not quite there yet). But The Clone Wars’ particular brand of stylization just seems cheap to me; I would have preferred the cool-looking 2D characters as they appeared in the TV series.
The Clone Wars is canon within the Star Wars universe, but no one (probably not even Lucas himself) would ever consider it as primary as its six older siblings. One advantage to being relegated to the second tier is a freedom to violate venerable Star Wars traditions. The classic opening crawl is gone, replaced with a Citizen Kane-style newsreel catching the audience up with the key facts needed to make sense of what’s going on in between all the ‘splosions. That particular change is a shame, but brace yourself for some heresy when I admit I find another change rather welcome: Kevin Kiner’s very non-John Williams-esque score. As much as Williams’ music was the soundtrack of my childhood (my entire generation can sing the Star Wars, Jaws, and Indiana Jones themes a cappella, on cue), I had long since tired of him. The point at which I lost it was the wall-to-wall blanket of redundant music that threatened to drown out the already almost overwhelming Saving Private Ryan.
The Clone Wars series and movie are both set chronologically between the events of Episodes II: Attack of the Clones and III: Revenge of the Sith, a razor-thin slice of time in which nothing of import really happened in Star Wars continuity. The movies already showed us how the war began and ended, so The Clone Wars movie and series are basically war stories. This is actually a good thing in light of how the prequel trilogy often became bogged down in tedious political procedure involving interplanetary trade routes. The series was by its nature a string of vignettes, but the feature film still feels like an episodic tour through a number of spectacular battles. A particularly gripping and exciting battle takes place on a vertical cliff face, “shot” with a hand-held “camera.” Lucas was sure to conceive of his two armies as droids and masked clones, allowing for carnage and huge body counts without a drop of blood (not to mention the economical reuse of costumes, and now, digital models). I remain puzzled, however, how clones and droids can have names, ranks, and varying skill sets. This writer grew up with the original trilogy, and still has trouble accepting stormtroopers being on the side of the good guys.
The TV series focused mostly on the battles, but the movie squeezes a fragment of a plot in between the action set pieces. Anakin Skywalker is inconveniently charged with training Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), an annoying teen “padawan learner” (a Lucasism for “apprentice” that still sounds very much like a George W. Bush malapropism). I still find it difficult to accept that the Anakin we see here and in Episode III is so close to the tipping point to absolute corruption that he will soon betray the Rebels and become the embodiment of evil, Darth Vader. At this point, he still seems a merely moody and impetuous kid horny for the girlfriend he left behind on Naboo. Being responsible for the spunky, goodhearted Ahsoka certainly does little to help him attain the state of emotional detachment Lucas equates with goodness.
Even though there’s no doubt a great deal of very expensive technology behind this kind of animation, it’s still cheaper than mounting a live-action production. Animation, where anything is possible, is also the best way for the Star Wars franchise to expand the stories of its existing characters, when the original actors have aged, become too expensive, disinterested, or passed away. So why focus only on the prequel characters? Why not tell more tales starring the trinity that everybody really loves: Luke, Leia, and Han? Is Lucas afraid that messing with the canonical heroes generations of fans have taken to heart is to risk fatally wounding their deep emotional connection to the mythos? Or to be cynical, he may always utilize the various masked characters (Chewbacca, Boba Fett, Jabba the Hut, Darth Vader, C-3PO, R2-D2) in anything at any time without clearing actors’ likenesses. That said, some of the original cast do lend their voices to The Clone Wars, including Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Daniels, and Christopher Lee. James Arnold Taylor does an excellent impression of Ewan McGregor’s excellent (in turn) impression of Alec Guinness.
One last thing: it wouldn’t be Star Wars without at least one offensively characterized alien. Jabba’s uncle Ziro the Hutt (Corey Burton) is inexplicably voiced as an old Southern queen.
I saw Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline on its opening day in my favorite movie theater, the best possible venue to see any remotely visually ambitious movie: the Clearview Ziegfeld in New York City. Fittingly, my tickets were misprinted “Caroline,” a misnomer that is a recurring plot point.
Coraline was written and directed by stop-motion animation genius Henry Selick, whose patient and precise hands also created the utterly mad pleasure The Nightmare Before Christmas (often erroneously credited to Tim Burton, who produced). As if Coraline needed any finer pedigree, it was based on the fine novella by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is a longtime favorite of this blogger, at least since my buying the very first issue of The Sandman new off the rack in 1989. Coraline and his later The Graveyard Book are both ostensibly aimed at “young adults,” which I guess means whomever is old enough to understand most of the words. Such a categorization is more about marketing and the convenience of knowing where to shelve titles in bookstores and libraries, anyway. As is also the case with his children’s books The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and The Wolves in the Walls (both illustrated by frequent collaborator Dave McKean), they’re all basically for anyone that likes to read.
Gaiman, once famous for possibly having the record for most unproduced projects in Hollywood, has been tearing up the movie biz of late. Just to name a few highlights, he wrote the script for McKean’s sumptuous film Mirrormask, had his fantasy novel Stardust (originally illustrated by Charles Vess) adapted into a film by Matthew Vaughn, and co-wrote the brilliant script for Robert Zemekis’ Beowulf with Roger Avery. As is his custom now for all his pending projects, Gaiman has been blogging and Tweeting about the Coraline adaptation all along, a process rudely interrupted by his winning the Newbury Medal for The Graveyard Book. His mantle is now officially groaning under the weight of all his trophies, medals, Very Important Prizes, and suchlike.
Gaiman was not directly involved with the making of Coraline (beyond being on good terms with the filmmakers and making the occasional consultation), but was pleased the finished product and especially with how well it was marketed by Weiden+Kennedy. Frequent readers of his blog will be familiar with how he blames Stardust’s relatively disappointing box office (in the US, anyway) with a marketing campaign that misrepresented what the film was actually like (the precise analogy he used went something like “more Princess Bride, less Ella Enchanted”). But I feel that this kind of heightened level of communication between artist and audience made possible by the internet might sometimes be too much information. Close to the release of Stardust, I recall Gaiman urging readers to see the film on opening weekend or even opening day if at all possible, the narrow window that in today’s movie industry determines the perception of success or failure. This time around, he made a point of mentioning that Coraline’s production company Laika had basically bet the entire farm on the film. I have been working for movie companies for years and am familiar with perpetual job insecurity. I was happy to go see the film right away anyway, but I would have rather not worried about whether or not I was protecting someone’s job. Thankfully, Coraline appears to have performed above expectations on its opening weekend, and all is well.
Apologies for the rambling preamble. On to the movie: Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and her family move into the ground-floor apartment of a crumbling rural house. Her parents are busy gardening writers without the time to actually garden, let alone to pay much attention to their only child. Coraline’s biggest problem is that she’s unhappy at being so often left alone. I suspect that most overprotected kids whose parents take them to see this movie will have trouble identifying with a kid who has too much freedom.
The residents of the neighboring apartments are at least as eccentric as those of The Sandman’s The Doll’s House. Russian acrobat Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), may or may not be training rodentia to take part in a Mouse Circus. Coraline gets off on the wrong foot with unloved oddball Wybie (Robert Baily, Jr.), who takes his name from “Why be born.” British comedy duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders appear as Misses Spink & Forcible (two Gaiman-esque names if there ever were any), a pair of well-aged actresses living in the basement.
Coraline discovers a long-forgotten doorway hidden behind furniture and layers of wallpaper. Not unlike the very similarly diminutive door in Being John Malkovich, it is a gateway to another world. Whereas the portal to Malkovich’s brain resembled the gross inside of a digestive tract, this one is part cobwebby cave and part glowing funhouse tunnel. On the other end of the door is another, better version of Coraline’s milieu. In the real world, no one gets Coraline’s name right, but in the Other World, everyone knows her. She is well fed, the garden is a luxurious Eden sculpted in her image, her bed is made, and her toys are new. But alas, her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) has constructed this enticing simulacrum just to ensnare her. Coraline is about to abandon the real world for this coddled existence, when she is given the price: she must sew buttons over her eyes. This is point in the film when adults squirm and kids squeal with delight. Creepy, creepy, creepy!
Roughly the first three-quarters of the film is genius-level setting of tone, character, and atmosphere. It falters only when a rigid plot structure appears out of nowhere and forces the narrative onto fixed rails. Cat (Keith David), the only other creature that can travel between worlds, tells Coraline that the Other Mother likes games. This key characteristic would have been better shown than told, for Coraline is able to turn the tables by simply challenging her to a game. The Other Mother immediately acquiesces, and is apparently unable to resist a game in the same way that the mythological Sphinx can’t resist a riddle (a plot point that also figures in Mirrormask). Coraline’s challenge is equal parts game and bet: if she can find the five souls The Other Mother has trapped before her (her parents and three other children), she must release them all. Finding three hidden objects hidden in different virtual worlds is a classic video game scenario. Coraline has no shortage of other MacGuffins to lose and recover, including a key and an Eye Stone (a magical jewel fortuitously provided by the actresses). Indeed, a tie-in videogame exists, which no doubt doesn’t have to stretch the story to structure its own narrative.
Also disappointing are the three children the Other Mother has already captured. Their trio of cutesy voices that compliment and encourage Coraline are the most conventional aspect of the film, not in keeping with the rest of the film’s enjoyably macabre tone. But actually, maybe this all makes sense… the kids are definitely not as bright and spunky as her, for she alone has the brains to escape and defeat the creature.
Stop-motion animation is one of the oldest filmmaking techniques, but Laika (based in Portland, Oregon) and Aardman Animation (makers of Wallce & Gromit and Chicken Run) are still making films more dazzling than the most advanced CGI. The reason is quite simple: you’re looking at moving photographs of physical objects crafted by human hands. Like Beowulf, Coraline is being shown in many theaters in 3D. If possible, the technology seems to have improved even since U23D, let alone since the 1950s. But as animated movies such as The Incredibles and WALL-E have proved, all the technology in the world must play second fiddle to a good story.
Gaiman has been saying in interviews lately that his books for kids are creepier than his novels for adults (including American Gods and Anansi Boys). In keeping, Coraline the film is wonderfully deranged, weird, and twisted. By far the eeriest sequence is the opening credits, featuring the hands of a creature we later learn is the Other Mother, ritually disemboweling a puppet and reconfiguring into a simulacra of Coraline. Watchdog site Kids-In-Mind nearly goes into meltdown counting the discrete instances of violence and disturbing imagery, and expect to read a great many reviews cautioning parents to keep sensitive kids away. But I suspect most kids will love this film, and will probably be better off for having their imaginations poked and prodded in ways that safer pap wouldn’t. One of the reasons I love movies is to experience the mad visual imaginations of directors like Selick (and Burton, McKean, Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry, Tarsem, etc.), and it’s a good thing “kids'” movies like Coraline are here to warp youngsters minds early.
Like writer/director Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, The Incredibles is a virtually perfect movie. Bird’s astonishing one-two punch for Pixar builds on the animation studio’s reputation for deep emotional resonance already earned by Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo and later reconfirmed by Wall-E. But Bird’s films add a welcome maturity that proves the medium of animation can be, at its best, truly for all ages.
Although packed with action, spectacle, and chase sequences, it’s difficult to imagine how little kids would react to such a relatively dark movie. Note the middle-aged anxiety, marital strife, and surprisingly high body count (granted, most deaths happen offscreen, but only just!). I can easily imagine most kids tuning out during the many long dramatic sequences obviously pitched at adults. Just to name one scene that might be hard for youngsters to grasp: Mr. Incredible saves a suicidal man who doesn’t want to be saved. Guest Dork Reporter Snarkbait asked her two little boy cousins what they liked best about their movie. They relate most to the character Dash, and probably selectively ignore the bits they can’t yet understand. So perhaps I’m underestimating how well the movie works on multiple levels.
Even the voice casting is so perfect, it’s impossible to imagine any others in their place. Craig T. Nelson is as perfectly suited to Mr. Incredible’s middle-aged anxieties as Tim Allen was to Buzz Lightyear’s innocent bluster in the Toy Story films. I could go on to praise every single other voice actor, but special mention must go to Holly Hunter as sassy spitfire Elastigirl, Sarah Vowell’s perfect expression of teen anxieties as (shrinking) Violet, and Brad Bird’s gut-bustingly hilarious impression of Hollywood fashion legend Edith Head as the superhero costume designer Edna Mode.
If forced to find one thing to critique, I would point to the relatively minor details of the characters’ hair. On the DVD bonus features, the Pixar animators and software engineers brag about the technologies they invented to simulate realistic hair, but none of the virtual coifs sit well upon the deliberately stylized cartoony faces. The characters have cute little dimples instead of hairy nostrils and waxy ear canals, so why give them such photorealistic hair?
Named after the ancient Persian city, Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis is a memoir of her life in Europe and Iran after the Iranian revolution. This animated feature joins the growing ranks of comic book adaptations that prove that comics are not only about superheroes that dress up in animal-themed costumes to battle crime. Hopefully it, along with other good comics-to-film triumphs Ghost World and A History of Violence, will broaden moviegoers’ awareness of the many alternative genres already explored in comics.
In a rare privilege perhaps only ever shared by Frank Miller in making Sin City with Robert Rodriguez, Satrapi served as co-director and writer of the film (with Vincent Paronnaud). She sings music to my ears in the DVD bonus features; to paraphrase, she states that it is a fool’s errand to make a literal, strict adaptation of any graphic novel to film. As comics writer Alan Moore once brilliantly and succinctly put it, comics are wholly unlike movies because, simply, “movies move.” The recent trend in Hollywood is to perform fan service (as it’s known) and make the most literally faithful adaptations possible. Sin City, 300, and the upcoming Watchmen all procede from the flawed presumption that the source materials’ fanbase (the nerdy, genre-convention-attending strawmen in studios’ equations that they expect to be buying the tickets and DVDs) want nothing less than perfect transitions from page to screen. But such a thing is never possible, let alone desirable.
That said, Persepolis the film does share the strikingly stark look of Satrapi’s characteristic pen and ink illustrations. A mostly black & white animated French memoir about a young Iranian woman could never be mistaken for blockbuster material, but it is funny, illuminating, and moving.
Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo immediately preceded Pixar’s slightly more sophisticated collaborations with director Brad Bird, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Despite being one of Pixar’s most kid-friendly films, Finding Nemo is paradoxically full of death and anxiety. But Stanton works in the proven tradition of its spiritual ancestor Bambi, which also famously features a mother’s arbitrary murder in its opening moments. Stanton keeps Finding Nemo childlike without being childish.
If I was stranded in a dentist’s office aquarium, and I could take only one of Stanton’s Pixar movies with me, I’m afraid I wouldn’t pick Finding Nemo. I found his follow-up WALL-E to be a more sophisticated film that relies less on dialog and celebrity personae.
Batman: Gotham Knight is a direct-to-DVD production from Warner Premiere, intended as a back-door prequel to the feature film Batman: The Dark Knight. Warner Bros. has tried this tactic before, and will again. 2003’s The Animatrix was a planned interlude in The Matrix franchise, enjoying extensive involvement from filmmakers the Wachowski Brothers. Coming soon is a motion-graphics animated version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel Watchmen, preceding the forthcoming live action feature film adaptation (no doubt Moore, who has long since divorced himself from his past work for Warner Bros.’ DC Comics, has a few choice words for this development).
The Animatrix and Gotham Knight are portmanteau films, the products of multiple writers and animation teams. But the latter is only tangentially related to its sister live-action film, The Dark Knight. A pair of detectives figure as characters in both, and the gang war that percolates in the background of The Dark Knight is the driving incident behind many of the Gotham Knight tales. But the short films (mostly in a Japanese anime style) vary wildly in quality and comprehensibility:
“Have I Got a Story For You” (Shoujirou Nishimi) – A pack of skate rats tell tall tales of the Batman, until the real deal shows up. One of the best of the lot, with a unique hand-drawn animation style, mixed with a little CG.
“Crossfire” (Futoshi Higashide) – Two detectives are literally caught in the crossfire of a gang war. Suffers from particularly awful dialogue.
“Field Test” (Hiroshi Morioka) – Batman receives a new toy from Lucius Fox that works a little too well.
“In Darkness Dwells” (Yasuhiro Aoki) – Guest-starring two veterans of Batman’s rogues’ gallery: Killer Croc and Scarecrow. Some of the best animation, but the story is incomprehensible.
“Working Through Pain” (Toshiyuki Kubooka) – Batman, shot in the gut, struggles alone just to get home. He has hallucinatory flashbacks to his spiritual training in the art of overcoming physical pain. He recalls how his teachers rejected him for his impure motivations (to enable his revenge plan, not to attain higher spirituality). This, one of the best stories, leads directly into:
“Deadshot” (Jong-Sik Nam) – …one of the worst. A master assassin (a blatant rip-off of the character Bullseye from Marvel Comics’ Daredevil) targets Lieutenant Gordon. A really lame conclusion to the collection.
With the delightful WALL-E, Pixar continues its as-yet unbroken winning streak of instant-classic films for all ages. From among their oeuvre, my personal tastes run toward the darker and more psychologically complex The Incredibles and Ratatouille by director Brad Bird. Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E certainly ranks among Pixar’s greatest hits, all films that will resonate decades hence with children of all ages (as the saying goes). Other studios continue to produce disposable pastiches such as Shrek and Ice Age, laden down with pop cultural references that will not age well and eventually be forgotten. While eye-popping now, perhaps some day Pixar’s animation will appear less than state-of-the art, and I do fear that one day Pixar may miscalculate and produce a critical and commercial failure. If they ever do, it will be because they lost their emphasis on storytelling craft and sense for timeless relevance.
WALL-E looks backwards in cinema history for inspiration to envision its grim distant future. WALL-E’s daily travails on an ecologically collapsed Earth resemble the desolate wastelands seen in such joyless apocalyptic downers as The Terminator and The Matrix. WALL-E is the lone survivor of his kind, dispassionately salvaging spare parts from his dead comrades. All this is potentially very scary stuff for kids, but the little guy has become charmingly eccentric over the course of his several-hundred year long mission, and his positive, can-do energy provides an amusing counterpoint to the dead world about him. Still, the themes of loneliness and environmental crisis are there for adults to plainly see and even the youngest viewers to pick up on.
Long before WALL-E, the camp sci-fi classic Logan’s Run supposed a future devolved humanity, reduced to a self-sustaining infantile state. Humanity imprisoned itself for the sake of survival, but the rational was long since forgotten and the closed system no longer unnecessary. It takes the rebellion of one free spirit to wake up the whole of society to the reality outside the walls of their enclosed womb (or tomb).
WALL-E draws its ecological metaphors and even the visual design of WALL-E himself from the classic hippie science-fiction film Silent Running. The last remnants of an overpopulated Earth’s biosphere are preserved in orbiting greenhouses, until venal corporations decide they are no longer necessary and are to be demolished. But one driven botanist and his team of cute gardening droids conspire to preserve a garden of eden forever, adrift in space, but a great cost: their rebellion is a bloody, murderous one.
The last major cinematic touchstone for WALL-E is, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The visual design of the Buy ‘n’ Large ark carrying the remnants of humanity is all about the clean, white lines of Kubrick’s space station, and none of the filthy grunge that has dominated science fiction ever since Ridley Scott’s Nostromo in Alien (but Sigourney Weaver does provide the voice of the ship’s computer, perhaps finally finding vengeance against Alien‘s evil computer M.O.T.H.E.R.). WALL-E‘s chief villain is the droid AUTO, with the single, sinisterly unblinking red eye of HAL 9000. Both are artificial intelligences that stunt the evolutionary advancing of the human race in a twisted literal reading of their programming to protect it. Deleterious overprotection is also a theme in Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo; the Marlon learns that his prohibitive coddling of his son prevents him from blossoming.
But more than anything, WALL-E is a love story. If you think about it too much, you realize WALL-E is several hundred years old, and is thus rocking the cradle when he falls for the later model droid EVE. A pistol-packin’, short-tempered spitfire in the fine tradition of Princess Leia, EVE is so far advanced that she’s practically a different species of robot. Still, when WALL-E upends an entire society in stasis, he also awakens EVE to the joys of life.
Pixar has long had business ties to Apple, but this is the first film of theirs to make overt in-jokes. WALL-E has somehow rigged a vintage VHS cassette of Hello, Dolly! to play on an only slightly less vintage iPod. Apple’s resident industrial design genius Jonathan Ive reportedly consulted on the design of EVE. WALL-E’s startup sound is the classic Macintosh boot-up fanfare. The “evil” robot AUTO speaks with the voice of MacInTalk, the text-to-speech technology invented by Apple in the early 90s. Any one of these gags would have been cute, but taken as a whole, one suspects the Berlin wall between companies is breaking down, resulting in crass product placement.
There’s a huge interest in Japanese manga and anime in the US, but it’s rare for an anime feature film to get a theatrical release. From the name and poster alone (indeed, what caught my own interest), one might not even guess Paprika is foreign-language, let alone anime. Anime is a medium, not a genre, but it does have a certain popular perception in the US: either the apocalyptic sci-fi of Akira or the fairy tale fantasia of Spirited Away. And that’s not even taking into account the expectations of a generation of kids that grew up watching the dubbed Robotech and Star Blazers serials (which would be exemplified by… me).
The popular perception is not wrong; I’m not an anime expert, but Paprika has several of the superficial trappings: cybernetic technology (like Ghost in the Shell), a ghostlike female creature (like director Satoshi Kon’s earlier Millennium Actress), and an exponentially growing world-eating beast (like Akira and America’s own The Blob). But what sets Paprika apart is its psychedelic imagery, adult themes, and sheer weirdness.
Like Blade Runner, it’s equal parts detective story and science fiction, with a splash of horror. The mystery genre provides a structure for the nominal plot: Paprika is the dream alter ego of Dr. Atsuko Chiba, a dream researcher building a machine for use in psychoanalytic dream analysis. The device they’re building is called the “DC Mini”, a name which, every single time, made me think of DC Comics’ miniseries. Chiba’s Blade Runner-esque mission is to track down three missing DC Mini devices, and their co-creator.
Paprika even shares a theme with Blade Runner: the moral repercussions of new technologies. If dreams are a kind of “place”, and can be a shared reality (like the world of The Dreaming in Neil Gamain’s Sandman comic book series), what is the difference between it and real life? The potential of one world bleeding into another is very literally dangerous. One of the film’s villains uses the dream reality to commit a very disturbing form of rape, and another goes so far as to label the technology a potential form of terrorism: “Implanting dreams into other people’s heads is terrorism.” This is not hyperbole in the film’s universe: the city is almost destroyed by dreams.
Two final little things:
What’s the deal with the name? Is it a translation issue, or something about Japanese culture (or cuisine) I’m not aware of? A metaphor of spices and recipes is used at one point, but it still seems oddly random.
A key character is movie-obsessed cop, an amateur filmmaker in his youth. His noirish dreams only further expand the Blade Runner parallels. Paprika explicitly equates movie watching with dreams and memory.