100 Animated Films V: Stop-Motion Wonders

piratesPirates! In An Adventure with Scientists

Pirates has a lot to recommend it. It was made by Aardman animation – their first stop-motion film since 2005, their first to be filmed in 3D and (I believe) their first to extensively blend stop-motion with computer generated animation. The voice cast includes Hugh Grant, David Tennant, Imelda Staunton, Lenny Henry – all perfectly cast. Of the films on my list this was one of the ones I was most looking forward to.

I’m not sure how to verbalise what about this film I found lacking. The humour, animation and voice acting are all top-notch – it was something about the plot, which involves surprisingly little pirating and a lot of quite disparate elements drawn together. Aardman Animation excels at short films but their full-length films tend to be bitty – this, I think, is why their best films are Chicken Run and Arthur Christmas. Both could easily have been short films – but they’re better for the extra length and use it for character development rather than more plot and more gags.

On the subject of character development: Pirate Captain, our protagonist. Pirates! is a film which does something I hate: it attempts to create the illusion of character development through a montage of the main character being very sad. But has he actually changed in anyway, or learned anything? Do his crew forgive him for any reason other than ‘well, the script says so’? Not really, no. Sure, he’s trying to make things right, but more to get his crew to like him again than because he understands what he done wrong.

And also: dodos were large birds. They stood about a metre tall – ‘bigger than a swan’ was a common comparison. I keep my sanity by imagining that Polly the Dodo is a member of a previously unknown species of Dwarf Dodo from a smaller island – but perhaps I am giving the film-makers too much credit.

panicA Town Called Panic

I’m at a slight disadvantage here because I’ve never seen the TV series of the same name – and I get the impression A Town Called Panic is very much an extra-long episode. My only prior experience with A Town Called Panic  was the series of Cravendale Milk adverts made by the same people with more or less the same characters.

That said: I enjoyed A Town Called Panic very much. The animation, though simple, is distinctive and very clever; that the characters are all, essentially, toys, appeals to the child in me. The plot structure reminds me a little of an episode of The Simpsons: it begins with the other characters attempting to get a birthday present for Horse but then spins off into something completely different… and completely different again… and again.

The toy-like animation models plus the disjointed plot make for an experience something like watching a story made up by someone playing with toys – the village actually reminds me of the shoebox ‘towns’ I used to make for my dolls to live in. It costs along on its own odd internal logic, from the Arctic to the bottom of the ocean to the centre of the earth. I love that kind of story-telling.

FrankenweenieFrankenweenie

I think the best summation of Frankenweenie I’ve seen so far is ‘more Tim Burton’. I think it might his most Tim Burton-y film to date. And I’m not actually dead keen on his style.

Still: Frankenweenie is a lot of fun, with some memorable characters and spot-on Hammer Horror pastiche. Victor’s relationship with the prophetically-named Sparky feels very real; it honestly hurts when the dog dies and Victor’s obsession with bringing him back to life is oddly touching.

That said, I feel like the film missed his own message. At the end of the film (spoilers!) Sparky dies again… but rather than just acknowledging that hey, dogs die sometimes, and moving on is important, Victor brings him back again – with the help of the townspeople, no less – and the film ends.

It’s not a very healthy message. How long does Victor intend to keep raising his dog from the dead when it dies? And given that he has now proven that it’s possible to raise the dead with sufficient electricity – how long is it before someone tries his trick on a dead family member? Sooner or later this world is going to have a Pet Semetary situation on its hands – or worse, a full-blown zombie apocalypse. Sure, the fact that most of the raised pets were monstrous should put most people off – but Sparky was just fine. For a desperate, grieving person with access to frequent lightning storms those would look like some pretty good odds.

Lots of ethical and metaphysical questions; not many answers. It’s a fun family film, but only if you don’t think too hard.

CoralineCoraline

Based purely on the animation, Coraline is a masterpiece. It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: this film is entirely stop-motion animated. There are no green-screen shots. The more you know about stop-motion, the more impressive it becomes – I’m still trying to wrap my head around just how you could create the climax in stop-motion. There’s effects that would likely be tricky to accomplish in CG. It holds a record for longest stop-motion film. Let’s all agree now: Laika are the masters.

Unfortunately, it has the same slight issue as Paranorman: the stop-motion is so good that if you didn’t know better you’d assume it was generic-looking CG. Aardman animation has always managed to avoid this by having such a distinctive stop-motion style that you couldn’t mistake it for anything else; Laika lacks this quality.

So what about the rest of the film? I’d say Coraline falls victim to what I’m going to dub the Thief and the Cobble dilemma. The Thief and the Cobbler is a tragically unfinished animated film made by Richard Williams. It was intended to be the greatest animated film of all time, and in some respects it would have been – check out this scene. But the plot and characters are uninspired and the Arabian Nights setting is about as heavily stereotyped as Disney’s Aladdin. How do you judge an animated film? By the animation or the content?

Not that Coraline is a bad film. It’s full of inventive and interesting plots and characters, but much of that it owes to its source material. If it had been made in CG animation I’d call it so-so: it’s enjoyable, creepy, Coraline is a strong and realistically child-like lead. It’s a great fairy tale – but again, it owes that to Neil Gaiman’s novella. I found the overall quality a little patchy; the last third or so devolves into a kind of video-game plot.

But it’s sure as hell not a bad film, even leaving aside the animation. It’s a rare female-led animated film children’s film that is not a romance (the only other such film released the same year was Dreamworks’ Monsters vs Aliens). It may be lacking in some areas – but it is definitely worth checking out.

Fantastic_mr_foxFantastic Mr. Fox

Oh, Roald Dahl. When will there be an adaptation of your work I actually like?

Fantastic Mr. Fox isn’t a bad film. Critically it was quite acclaimed. I enjoyed some of the deadpan humour and the music and it does get some parts of its source material down – Boggis, Bunce and Bean are done beautifully.

But Mr. Fox himself is not Fantastic. Not even a little. Some kind of vital essence or spirit of the character is missing. I’m not sure what it is – but he lacks the brilliance and dashing charm of his book counterpart. The constant deadpanning doesn’t help – it’s irritating and not very suitable for animation. This is a medium that needs more energy.

The animation itself doesn’t help either. The models have an eerie realism to them, disjointed movements, and creepy dead eyes. It’s not nice to look at, except in stills, and it’s not nicely shot – for some reason the film keeps cutting to close-ups. Close-ups of jerky, dead-eyed model faces. I don’t know who thought that would be a good idea – and it’s not that Wes Anderson isn’t used to working with animation, because he didn’t direct the stop-motion, just the voice actors.

Ultimately, my problem with Fantastic Mr. Fox is the same as my problem with many adaptions of children’s books: if there’s not enough source material to comfortably fill out a feature-length film, don’t make a feature length film. It’s really not that complicated. Some books are just better suited to short form – or to not being adapted at all.

Next: Studio Ghibli.

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