Metafictional metaphysics and the art of puppetry

I’m a big fan of Laika. No, not the space-faring dog so much as the animation company responsible for Coraline, ParaNorman and, most recently, Kubo and the Two Strings, one of my favourite films of 2016. Their loving dedication to the art of stop-motion animation tends to combine with their ability as storytellers and their oddball imagination to strange and wonderful effects, making their films distinctly different from Pixar’s beautiful but more sentimental fare, and elevating them far beyond other contenders with their well-rehearsed snark and pop culture references. I’d avoided The Boxtrolls to date, mainly because I’d heard that it was distinctly lesser Laika – and now, having caught it on TV, I would probably agree that it’s nowhere near the top of my list of Laika favourites, but it is still a great example of the company’s craftsmanship. The film, loosely based on Alan Snow’s 2006 children’s book Here Be Monsters!, combines the early Victoriana of Charles Dickens’ novels with the dark and sometimes gleefully gruesome humour of Roald Dahl – and hinting at even darker and more surreal entertainments such as the films of Monty Python.

The Boxtrolls

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Shamisen Hero

“If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see, no matter how unusual it may seem. If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.”

— Kubo and the Two Strings

Laika Entertainment may just be the most underrated animation studio currently working. Everyone knows Disney and Pixar, you can barely go to the cinema without seeing a DreamWorks trailer, and Studio Ghibli and Aardman Animations deservedly have a large fanbase. Laika’s gorgeous features, from Coraline to ParaNorman, are mentioned much more rarely, though – which is a shame, since their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, deserves much more of an audience, as it is one of the most beautiful works of animation I’ve seen in a long time.

Kubo and the Two Strings Continue reading

Would you kindly…?

My apologies for the posting delay – I was laid low the last two days with a stomach bug. I’m still home from work, but now I have no more excuse to dawdle… So here, without much further ado, the latest entry. I promise not to throw up while writing it.

I’ve been re-reading The Sandman from beginning to end. About a month ago I got the last of the Absolute Sandman volumes – gorgeous hardback large-format reprints of the original comics, with tons of extras such as additional stories in the Endless universe or scripts of some of the most important issues.

Yes, I know, I'm a book fetishist.

This is probably the fourth or fifth time time I’m reading the series in its entirety, and I still have the same favourites: A Game of You (vol. 5), Worlds’ End (vol. 8) and The Kindly Ones (vol. 9 – more on that later). However, Brief Lives (vol. 7) has grown on me, especially the last few chapters. I’m still not all that hot on its art, but the storytelling is fantastic – Gaiman at his finest – and it’s pretty much the volume when Delirium comes into her own.

I’m currently halfway through The Kindly Ones, and even at a fifth re-read, it still packs quite a punch. I love the art (which some found too cartoony – but I definitely prefer it to the more generic comic-book art of some of the other volumes, even though they all have their inspired moments), but even more, I love how Gaiman manages to bring together dozens of threads from the previous volumes in clever but not ostentatious ways. He makes it all feel natural and, as in all the best tragedies, inevitable.

Imagine him brushing his teeth (and flossing) and he'll get a lot less creepy...

There are a number of things that in the hands of a lesser writer would feel like fan service, especially the return of the Corinthian, or indeed the extended scenes with Mervin Pumpkinhead. But what Gaiman pulls off is something that few series (in any medium) have managed so far: reading The Kindly Ones, you get the impression that he’s always known where he was going. And you want to follow him, even though you know it’ll all end in tears.

I haven’t been all that hot about most of Gaiman’s work since The Sandman. His recent short stories, and indeed his novels, have seemed too twee, too enamoured with their cleverness. There are always great bits, but in between those bits I feel I’m reading some Gaiman imitator who does an okay job but simply isn’t the same. Fragile Things was a shadow of Smoke and Mirrors (which contains some of my favourite short stories). Anansi Boys was fun but pretty forgettable. I liked Coraline a lot, though – perhaps Gaiman tries too hard to be clever and Gaimanesque when writing for adults, and when he writes for children he simply focuses on telling a good story. Which, in Coraline, he very much does.

Talking of Gaiman: this animated short reminded me of him – most of all because Nick Cave’s narration sounds exactly like some of Gaiman’s readings: