I’m not a huge fan of animated features. The Disney classics may have spoiled me: Like comets, they only came streaking into theaters once every few years, and the experience of going to see a reissue with my family was as exciting as actually seeing it. (Plopping Bambi or Dumbo into the DVD player isn’t the same thing.) My daughter has the Pixar movies, and the Pixar knockoffs, to look forward to on the big screen, but the specialness of animation as an art form has been lost given the sheer mass of the stuff — some top-notch, some dreck — coming in over the airwaves.
Nevertheless, something always manages to break through the clutter. Last year it was the Iran-derived graphic novel adaptation Persepolis; this year, the Israel-made Waltz With Bashir, a worthy contender for the Foreign Film Oscar. It’s tempting to say that the only way to convey the crisis-wracked history of the Middle East is to turn it into a cartoon, but not everything clicks as animation. Think of last year’s Chicago 10, with its useless rotoscoping of actors. But Waltz With Bashir is closer in spirit to the outstanding film version of A Scanner Darkly, taking us into a nightmare zone that first registers as a subconscious, difficult-to-articulate dread, then snaps into a harsher reality.
In Israel, writer-director Ari Folman created In Treatment, the analyst show that HBO has Americanized, and Waltz With Bashir is another trip to the couch. This time, memory itself, individual and collective, is being scrutinized. The beginning is jolting: Crazed dogs running amuck in Tel Aviv seem to attack the fleeing camera, before alighting on the home of a helpless middle-aged resident. We learn that this is the dream of Boaz Rein-Buskila, a friend of Folman’s, and we learn its significance. As a nervous greenhorn in the Israel army, one dispatched to Lebanon for the 1982 war, he was judged incapable of killing the enemy, so was assigned to shoot the dogs that warned the Palestinians of their approach. The ghost animals prey on him nightly.
But Folman has no recollections; his service in the same campaign has been wiped clean. That it tugs at him, like a phantom limb, sets off the film’s inquiry, as he interviews other fellow veterans about their experiences, and recovers his own, seemingly expunged narrative from the miasma. There is an excursion into the science of memory and post-traumatic stress disorder, conducted by Folman’s psychologist. There are diversionary tactics, too, as Folman recalls the naivete of his two years of army training, party time disrupted by actual battle for which he and his buddies were woefully unprepared. The film dips in and out of the stories of his friends, pulling up images strikingly realized by animation director Yoni Goodman and art director David Polonsky. In one sequence, a naked sea goddess clasps a virginal trooper to her breasts as he’s shipped off to the front line; in another, the enveloping sea becomes a refuge for a soldier who had narrowly escaped Palestinian snipers. A naturalistic approach would have robbed these scenes of their dreamlike intensity and impact. (There’s also an animated porn sequence, which surprised an audience expecting a glum, PBS-style treatise on the Palestinian conflict, whatever form it took visually. The approach, with songs like OMD’s “Enola Gay” on the soundtrack, is anything but academic.)
Gradually, Folman reaches the heart of darkness: The Sept. 16-18, 1982 massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, perpetrated by Christian Phalangist soldiers outraged over the assassination of Lebanon’s president-elect, Bashir Gemayel. The Israel Defense Forces, allied with the Phalangists, let their militiamen into the camps, then stood by for two days as the civilians within were murdered (the death toll has been put at between 328 to 3,500 casualties). His own role in abetting the killings is absorbed into the totality of the event, marking a dramatic changeover in form in its final sequence.
Something interesting happened in the theater as Waltz With Bashir reached its chilling climax. The house lights began to come up, and the venue was fully illuminated as the credits began to roll. It may have been a mistake, but it seemed purposeful: Illumination had finally dawned as the full futility of war was exposed and the filmmaker came to his reckoning. With great artistry, Waltz With Bashir literally illustrates what William Faulkner had to say about the persistence of history. “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
Coraline is the first stop-motion animated film shot in 3D. Which is too bad: Think of what the original King Kong would have looked like busting through the screen, or an army of third-dimensional skeletons mobilizing in Jason and the Argonauts. Given the digital orientation of so much effects work Coraline may be the last stop-motion feature shot in 3D — so those of us who like the play of exquisitely detailed, hand-crafted modelwork across the screen have reason to cheer that Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas (which has been converted for the process for annual Halloween screenings) and James and the Giant Peach, got the job.
Neil Gaiman, on whose bestselling book the film was based, has been fortunate in other mediums, but not film. Coraline is the most successful screen Neil Gaiman yet; the off-kilter sensibilities behind the camera harmonize. Hollywood is obsessed with the notion that 3D will somehow rescue it from the maw of the recession, but, mindful of how the craze went down in the 50s, I say further stimulus may be in order. Still, 3D gives the carefully built environments a reach-out-and-touch-them clarity, and the pop-out effects are restricted. (Stay through the very end of the credits for the one real eye-grabber, the unveiling of the logo of the production studio, Laika.)
In plain-wrap 2D, the movie will still transport, though in either format your mileage will vary depending on how much patience you have for family-tweaking ghoulishness. The story flies off in various morbidly funny, or just plain morbid, directions but is basically simple: Eleven-year-old Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning, having a big week with this and Push in release), upset with her workaholic parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) over their relocation to the gloomy Pacific Northwest, retreats into a secret passageway in their new home. The Other World she finds there is the exact opposite of the one she despises, and she basks in the attention her Other Parents (Hatcher and Hodgman again) lavish on her. That the Other Residents have lifeless buttons for eyes is a peculiarity of her new surroundings…until Other Mother shows an interest in her that is far more possessive than parental.
Coraline has a lot going for it. Its problem is that there is too much of it; if the film had clocked in at 85 minutes, with the other 15 saved for a director’s cut DVD, my eyes might not have been buttons once it ended. (Supporting characters voiced by Ian McShane, the hardest-working Brit in the business, and Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders add eccentricity rather than depth.) Part of my discomfort was with one of its assets, the score, by Bruno Coulais, best known for the nature documentaries Microcosmos and Winged Migration. It has an enchanted, ethereal quality, like haunted lullabies — but lullabies are for sleeping, and the music is like a sprinkling of sonic fairy dust about the eyes and ears.
That said, there is plenty to stay awake for. Fanning is a tart-tongued charmer, Hodgman adds to his areas of expertise as a voiceover artist, and while I don’t really get the appeal of Teri Hatcher in the flesh, as a stop-motion puppet she has a dangerous allure. I add Cat, purred by Keith David, to my list of favorite movie felines. At its best, Coraline is a real doll.