Entry for February 24, 2009: Animation roundup

During the visit of college chum Stuart C.G. and his son Sammy just over a week ago, Janice and I met them and Thomas K.Y. to screen Coraline at the AMC Framingham multiplex near where I work in Framingham, Massachusetts.

I enjoyed the stop-motion fantasy movie, which reminded me of Pan's Labyrinth as much as its siblings The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. Unlike Alan Moore, who has been unhappy with cinematic adaptations of his graphic novels — From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta, and the upcoming Watchmen — Neil Gaiman has been more involved and arguably gotten better results.

MirrorMask, Stardust, and Coraline have all been faithful in spirit, if not in plot particulars, to Gaiman's quirky work. In addition, among many other things (most notably Sandman for DC Comics' Vertigo line), Gaiman adapted Princess Mononoke for U.S. audiences and wrote the screenplay for the computer-animated Beowulf.

Coraline is about a girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning) who is bored with her parents and finds a parallel world in which everyone initially appears to be nicer and more interested in her. Fans of The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and similar fairy tales will recognize the archetypes, but the strange-looking denizens of Coraline still felt fresh.

The voice casting, as with the best animated films, uses actors for the appropriateness of their voices rather than publicity stunts. For example, Lois and Clark's Teri Hatcher provides the voice of the girl's mothers, and Gargoyles' Keith David is the cat who warns of hidden dangers in the "button-eyed" universe. Overall, I'd give Coraline an 8 out of 10, or a B+/A-. It's rated PG for some scary images.

Speaking of Princess Mononoke, later that weekend, I met Beruk A., Stuart, and Sammy at Thomas' place for Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, the latest anime feature from Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli. Ponyo is about a boy in a seaside village who finds a small mermaid. As with most Studio Ghibli movies, it balances a charming depiction of childhood with larger mythic themes.

Unlike other recent Miyazaki films, such as Howl's Moving Castle, Ponyo is more child-friendly, avoiding grotesque monsters or carnage in favor of a timeless reminder of the value of friendship. Thus, the award-winning Ponyo is closer in style to The Cat Returns or Kiki's Delivery Service. It was a little long for Sammy and the youngest watchers. The video we watched was subtitled, but I look forward to an English-language dubbed version. I'd also give Ponyo an 8 out of 10.

Backing up a bit, with all the gaming I've been doing lately, friends have asked how I've found time for so much genre television. The truth is that I've finally dropped a few shows, such as Battlestar Galactica and Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, in favor of reading episode summaries online.

After Psych's entertaining half-season finale, and with Dollhouse still being lackluster so far, I'd have to say that my favorite "SciFriday" show lately has been the computer-animated Star Wars: the Clone Wars, with the fun Batman and the Brave and the Bold a close second.

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