PLOT: Two children left alone at home encounter a human-sized talking cat who leads them on a series of wacky and destructive misadventures.
Shall I spin you a tale of a movie gone wrong?
Of 82 minutes that feel three days long?
Then I’ll tell unto you, just right there where you’ve sat
Of the travesty known as The Cat in the Hat.
‘Twas a gray day in Hollywood, no dreams to dream,
When one junior executive cooked up a scheme:
“What we need’s some IP we can plunder for cash.
It can be mediocre, can even be trash!
All we need is the title; who cares if it’s rank?
They’ll fill up the theaters, and we’ll all make bank.”
“You’re so right,” said his colleagues, “it’s easy as pie.
For familiar content, we won’t even try.”
So those vultures considered what might be of use
And decided to dig up our dear Dr. Seuss.
“We’ve done it before,” they all cried. “It’s a cinch.
We grossed two-sixty mill on that trash heap, The Grinch.
Which proves that we needn’t pretend like we care. No,
That garbage still vacuumed up mucho dinero.”
The honchos began to assemble the parts
That would demonstrate all of their filmmaking smarts.
A novice director? Sure, that’ll be fine.
“We’ll pick some guy known for production design.”
“And a script?” a small voice piped up. “I took a look
And it might be a challenge to translate a book
That’s so short. We’ll get ripped by the Dr. Seuss nerds;
It’s one thousand six hundred and twenty-six words.”
“Damn the length!” came the riposte. “Damn logic and plot.
For those minor objections,” they said, “we care not.
Once we get a big star, we’ll have no cause for worry.
His comedy chops will fix things in a hurry.”
So they looked at the feline displayed on the front
And decided to try an uproarious stunt.
Tall and thin, long of limb, with a wide, gleeful eye…
“Mike Myers!” they cried. “There’s no doubt he’s our guy!”
And perhaps that is how we arrived at this place,
At a movie so lacking in wit and in grace.
PLOT: Two young girls befriend a forest spirit who lives in a tree near their new country house.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: My Neighbor Totoro is somewhat strange, like being dropped into the unfiltered imagination of a six-year old girl. Its kidlike oddness is not sustained enough to thrill adult weirdophiles, however.
COMMENTS: In My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki takes yōkai, Japanese traditional folk monsters, and literalizes them in the only way possible: by making them into real spiritual phenomenon that are only visible to children. None of the adults in the movie, even Satsuki and Mei’s university professor father, doubt the real existence of the yōkai; a grandmotherly character confesses that she could see them when she was young, but lost the ability with age. This strategy creates a pleasant truce between kids and adults as to the reality of these fairy creatures. Grownups can’t see or interact with Totoro or his friends, but they don’t denigrate or patronize kids for believing in them. The girls’ first encounter with the mythical creatures is in the form of “soot sprites” who huddle in the dark corners of the long-vacant country home. Later, Mei, the younger of the girls, will encounter a couple of miniature troll-creatures (these mini-Totoro’s are never explained); following them leads her inside a hollow camphor tree, where she finds the massive plush Totoro slumbering, and immediately befriends him. Later, at a rainy bus stop, Satsuki meets Totoro, too. Impressed by her offer of an umbrella, he introduces her to the film’s strangest invention, the Catbus: literally, a fuzzy bus with a tail and a Cheshire cat grin. Catbus is a fusion of the organic and the mechanical, a newfangled yōkai for the 20th century. Although there are magical nights when the girls soar above the treetops with Totoro and friends, not a lot of the movie’s running time is actually devoted to fantastical encounters with yōkai. Most of the time, we are engaged in the girls’ domestic life with their doting dad, and in observing the bucolic vistas of a Japanese country village. There is a distant stressor in the girls’ sick mom, but for the most part their days are spent happily, exploring the countryside and doing cartwheels among the flowers. Although some adults may find the lack of expected tension and conflict in the story perplexing and unfamiliar, Miyazaki’s technique strikes a chord with young children across cultures. What four- to eight-year-old girl wouldn’t want to have a huge, friendly, protective teddy bear like Totoro as a friend to recline and rely on? Totoro doesn’t have bad guys or moments of serious jeopardy because its ultimate message to kids is that they don’t have to be scared by life’s challenges and changes; the unknown isn’t a threat, it’s an opportunity.
Although Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli has long been intimately associated with its current distributor, Walt Disney, in the English speaking world, the fact is that Totoro‘s first American distributor was none other than the low-budget exploitationeers Troma. The scant negative reviews for the film that can be found almost all relate to the Troma theatrical release. It’s not clear whether this is because Troma’s dub job detracted from Miyazaki’s magic, or whether Disney’s seal of approval predisposed critics to approve of the effort. Disney acquired the rights to this early feature in 2006 and re-dubbed the film with a better-known vocal cast. Meanwhile, Totoro himself became so popular that he was incorporated into Studio Ghibli’s logo, becoming Japan’s equivalent of Mickey Mouse.
PLOT: Documentary on Henry Darger, the reclusive Chicago janitor who secretly wrote a slightly insane, 19,000 page fantasy novel about a child slave rebellion, illustrated by hundreds of incredibly detailed full size paintings.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Outsider artist supreme, a devout Catholic with an innocently fetishistic obsession for little girls, Henry Darger is a persona every weirdophile should be acquainted with. The method behind this solid and respectful documentary isn’t itself weird enough to make this a candidate for the List, but if anyone ever attempts a literal adaptation of Darger’s opus The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, I suspect it will be a shoo-in.
COMMENTS: With one exception addressed below, In the Realms of the Unreal uses only standard documentary tools to tell the tale of Henry Darger: interviews with people who knew him, readings from primary sources (his autobiography and his 15,000 page novel), still photographs of the places and people the poor janitor knew, and most significantly the man’s own paintings. The world Darger invented inside his head, a mixture of the Bible, the American Civil War, and children’s storybooks, populated by saintly little girl warriors in pigtails and frilly dresses bearing bayonets, is so inherently fascinating that the documentarian does best to get out of its way and let it speak for itself. The few facts that are known about the recluse’s life are given to us chronologically, followed by glimpses of events in the Realms that may have been inspired by his life experiences. Darger was orphaned at a young age. The bookish boy had trouble fitting in with his peers at the orphanage, and was sent to live at a “home for feeble-minded children,” where he was forced to labor on a work farm. After several failed escape attempts he was finally successful at fleeing the farm and made his way to Chicago where, after a short Stateside stint in the army in World War I, he settled into a lifelong routine of cleaning the floors at a Catholic hospital, attending Mass three times a day, and spending his evenings in his lonely room constructing the Realms of the Unreal. In this world, the evil Glandelinians (whose soldiers dress like Confederates wearing graduation caps) fight mighty battles against the Christian armies of Abbieannia. The conflict is sparked by a slave rebellion led by the seven Vivian girls, saintly children who occasionally exhibit magical powers throughout the epic war. The children are sometimes aided by winged Blengins, mythical creatures who can appear as dragons or butterflies with the face of children, or as children with rams’ horns. Darger himself appears in the story, summoned to help the Abbieannians due to his cosmic reputation as an enemy of all who hate and oppress children. Even more fascinating than the 15,000 page narrative supplemented by detailed lists of battle casualties, generals, and lyrics to the various military anthems were the hundreds of paintings Darger used to illustrate the Realms. Incredibly detailed landscapes full of odd folk beauty were populated by angelic little girls whose faces had been traced or copied from newspaper advertisements. Disturbingly, the children are often naked, sometimes bound, and occasionally depicted as eviscerated or choked. Even more disturbing, and the weirdest aspect of Darger’s very weird opus, is the fact that he invariably drew his naked little girls with tiny penises. Theories for this odd conception of the female body range from the symbolic to the psychosexual to the commonly held notion that Darger was simply so sexually naïve that he had no knowledge of the anatomical differences between males and females. The apparently innocent, ambiguously erotic nature of these nude tableaux endow Darger’s work with a mysterious and intriguing artistic friction. When not working on his novel or paintings, Darger obsessed about the weather, carried on conversations with himself while speaking in different voices, tried to adopt a child, and wrote angry prose railing at God when the Church turned down his adoption petition. Henry Darger, the janitor from Chicago, was a very strange and sad man whose self-imposed loneliness, religious torment, and utopian longings found a secret outlet in art. Unspoiled by formal art training or by any sense of social shame, Darger created a hermetically sealed alternate universe, a world weird in the purest and noblest sense.
Although it is a conventional treatment overall, two criticisms have been levied against Jessica Yu’s documentary. One, often raised by film critics, is that the film fails to seek out experts in psychology and art history to help give us a deeper perspective on Darger. Of course, only a critic would complain that a movie didn’t feature enough input from critics. The other, somewhat more serious objection, offered by Darger fans, is with Yu’s decision to crudely animate certain scenes from Darger’s action-oriented war paintings. In my view, the addition of occasional movement in the battle scenes (there’s probably only a minute or two of actual animation) does no real damage to the images, but nor does it add anything. One offended fan angrily asks whether we’d accept a documentary on Picasso or Gauguin that set their masterpieces in motion. Since that idea doesn’t bother me in the slightest, I may be the wrong person to ask.
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DIRECTED BY: Henry Selick
FEATURING: Dakota Fanning (voice), Teri Hatcher (voice)
PLOT: A petulant little girl finds a parallel universe behind a hidden door in an old house, a world where her parents are more attentive, her neighbors more fascinating, and the entire universe seems set up to pamper and delight her; she can stay there forever, but of course there’s a catch.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I attended a screening with a ten-year old and asked him if he thought the movie was “weird.” His answer: “Nah, not unless you think every fantasy movie is weird.” Smart lad.
COMMENTS: Coraline is a welcome dark fantasy for children, although its themes of evil Doppelgänger moms, frightening buttons, and implied eye-gouging are too scary for very little ones. Since it’s from Hanry Selick, the director of the borderline weird Nightmare Before Christmas, we suspect going in that the art direction and stop-motion animation will be the real stars. Selick does not disappoint, shuffling the viewer through three distinct visual styles: the dingy earth tones of real life, a brightly colored, eye-popping fantasy world, and a sinister, disintegrating universe with an insect trapped in a spiderweb theme. The storyline, and the unexpected scares once the movie shifts from childhood fantasy to childhood horror in the third act, make Coraline more than just eye candy for the kiddies.
Presented in theaters in 3-D, but the novelty doesn’t add anything significant to experience: I would have been just as happy to watch the same moving pictures tell the same story on an unabashedly flat screen. Though there’s nothing really weird to be found here, Coraline, in the best children’s’ movie tradition, is worth a trip even for adult fans of fantasy and pure escapism.