I’ve been rather busy of late with work on this summer’s The Persistence of Animation/Society for Animation Studies Conference (check out what’s happening with it here), but did want to put in my two cents about Henry Selick’s Coraline and Conrad Vernon and Rob Letterman’s Monsters vs. Aliens before it’s too late.
Henry Selick is one of the good guys in the animation world and Coraline was eagerly awaited by one and all, myself included; however, I found the film disappointing, especially in its use of 3D stereo; on the other hand, Monsters vs. Aliens seemed much more enjoyable and its use of 3D considerably more effective and, above all, was not as self conscious.
Coraline’s reception seemed to ran from mixed to ecstatic, with a generally positive response to Selick’s handling of 3D. Among the few dissenters of sorts was Cartoon Brew’s Amid Amidi, who led off his comments on February 26 by noting,
Coraline was the first time I’d seen a film in 3-D in a very long time, and while I enjoyed the film immensely, the 3-D technology was a huge dud. The imagery on-screen was so fuzzy that I initially thought my glasses were defective and exchanged them for another pair. Apparently, it wasn’t the glasses though; that’s just part of the 3-D “experience”. Add to that an annoying strobe on close-up shots, tinted glasses that obscured details during the film’s darker scenes, and leaving the theater with a headache, and it ends up being a miserable experience that I don’t anticipate repeating anytime soon.
One of the reasons sometimes given for the failure of 3D films in the early 1950s were complaints of headaches, which recent technology claims to avoid; though Amid’s is the only such complaint I have come across of late, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was not alone. This is not something to be taken lightly, but so far it does not appear to threaten the technology’s increasing popularity. (Recall that the Denn? Senshi Porygon episode of Pokémon caused seizures among Japanese children; also, a few students complained to me about the stroboscopic effects when I screened George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine.)
I wonder whether Amid’s problems were aggravated by Selick’s poor use of 3D? While Selick is not throwing things in the viewer’s face as much as Robert Zemeckis did in Beowulf, it’s a major annoyance. Yes, the story of a young girl who finds an idealized version of her parents in a parallel universe has a certain whimsical appeal, but Selick’s use of 3D, which constantly calls attention to itself, just gets in the way. (I suspect this self-consciousness might even carry over into the non-3D version.)
In terms of story, Monsters vs. Aliens, which tells of a woman turned into a giantess on her wedding day after being hit by a meteor and her subsequent encounter with aliens, seems more pedestrian; however, in terms of direction, script and use of 3D, it is easily the better film. DreamWorks Animation, like Disney before it in Meet the Robinsons and Bolt, seems to see no need to constantly slap the viewer in the face to remind them they are watching a 3D movie. (I did cringe at the beginning when a bouncing paddleball is aimed at the camera, but this thankfully proved proved a momentary affectation.) Instead, Vernon and Letterman make the stereoscopic environment seem natural and unaffected; as a result, the climatic scenes, where the stereo effects are most pronounced, does not call attention to itself.
I wonder how much of the positive reception accorded Coraline was due to it being a Henry Selick film produced by an independent studio (Portland, Oregon’s Laika), using stop motion puppets, rather than from a mainstream Hollywood studio (DreamWorks Animation) using computer animation? (Film history is littered with films whose initial reception was heavily colored by premature expectations [e.g., Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Mike Nichols’ The Graduate], which may or may not be fully realized.)
While, Monsters vs. Aliens may not stand up to the likes of Sita Sings the Blues, it nevertheless affirms my faith that the current wave of 3D films will not soon go away.
P.S.: In the for what it’s worth department, my wife, who has limited vision in one eye and thus limited depth perception, has no problem in this regard when seeing stereoscopic movies; and one of my students with similar vision problems reports a similar experience.