This One is Much More Opinion Than Fact (Coraline Continued)

Today I should be able to combine story and moral(ising). I don’t think it’ll be anywhere near as long as the brief history of animation we ended up with yesterday. Ideally, I wanted to fit it all into one post, and maybe I should have just focused on Coraline and put all the history stuff in a separate post, but this is what it is. So here we go.

Nowadays, a cartoon can’t get made if it doesn’t have one. This is another inheritance from Disney. My first reaction was to say that as people we can’t tell a story without also telling a moral. After thinking on that, however, I just think it’s a tendency and not a rule.

To use cartoons as an example, observe classic Warner Brother’s cartoons, by which I mean the old 5-7 minute shorts featuring the classic WB characters: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the like. Very few of them had any kind of moral to teach,and when they did, the moral served to aid the story, not impede it, and this is where I draw exception.

Probably 90% of the Gold and Silver Age cartoons (30s-50s, so named because of their impact on animation, their popularity, and their willingness to experiment. By contrast, think of the modern cartoon scene as the Lead Age.), including Disney, just told absurd stories. Things that were intensely improbably, impossible, and simply put, cartoony. When Disney started rolling out the feature length cartoons, cartoons began to contain morals.

At first, it wasn’t such a big deal, and the morals didn’t act as impediments and this was because Disney was simply animating already classic stories, such as Snow White, Pinocchio, and Peter Pan. Since they were classics, the moral was already pretty central to the story, therefore there was less of a burden on Disney’s part. It’s a little bit harder, however, to tell when cartoons became really preachy. The Disney Distillation art style started to pop up in the 70s, and as long as Disney was animating already classic stories, there was less of a chance of being preached at by our cartoons. It probably started when Disney started to write their own stories, which began to happen in the 80s, but really became an ear-sore in the 90s. That’d be my guess. Pixar, however, has raised preaching like it’s Sunday morning to an art form.

Let’s analyze Wall-E here. I love the movie dearly, I really do, but the last third of the movie is as bad as entering an unplanned detox and realizing that you’ve run out of rum. The first two thirds are as subtle as bad ham (you know how you have to have three or four people smell it before you decide it’s bad? I mean it as a compliment). It’s so still and eerie as you watch Wall-E navigate this ruined planet. The movie just parcels out these wonderfully subtle clues as to where everyone went.

Then you meet the humans, and the disappointment starts to slowly build. At first, you can’t notice it, then by the last twenty minutes you’re hit by a brick in the face about working together, and how somehow that’ll compensate for a small triviality like a life time of laziness, being self-centered, and ignorance.

Just watch from 1:30 to about 3:30. That’s all I really needed to show.

I suppose I should define my terms here. Moralizing is when a character, or characters, has a soap box moment where they more or less just state the moral. We’ll get to that in a minute. What Wall-E actually suffers from is pathos. Pathos is, by dictionary definition, the evoking of emotions through a piece of work, whether it be literature, music, speech, play or art. For the sake of this definition, however, it’s the evoking of emotion through a means other than actual emotion, such as consistent repetition of an idea related to the moral, or overly saccharine emotion, or the representation of an idea not actually stated, but so infectious that it overcomes all obstacles without actually addressing them. The pudgy jello humans just kind of magically perform, because that’s how powerful the idea is (even though only two people on that whole ship even caught wind of the idea – that’s how powerful it is), with very little struggle or difficulty. This is a bizarre non-sequitur that forces us to suspend disbelief in a way that we would reject in any other medium. We give cartoons leeway because it’s a cartoon, though there’s nothing actually cartoony about this jump in believability we’re expected to make. It’s like letting a deaf person be exempt from learning how to write because they can’t hear. Doesn’t make sense.

Then we have Kung Fu Panda that will moralize at you, do it some more for good measure, and just in case you missed it, moralize some more. The first Spider-Man is also guilty of this (with great power comes great responsibility is repeated like a Buddhist mantra).

I tried for longer than is probably healthy to find when Po first discovers that “there is no secret ingredient.” I found a website with a Spanish dub that had it, but that’s all I could find. As a consequence, this will be longer than it should be. In this segment, we only hear it once, but in the segment before it, we hear it at least 3 or 4 times. It hinges around Po’s father who has this great soup, and has a great well guarded family secret ingredient. Po has been trying to get this thing called the dragon scroll throughout the whole movie, which will supposedly hold the secret to defeating this village’s greatest nemesis. Po finally gets it, only to see that it’s a blank sheet of reflective gold leaf, disappointed and distraught, he leaves the temple only to, DEUS EX MACHINA!!!!, run into his dad, who chooses the moment of his village’s diaspora to tell Po that he’s old enough to know the secret ingredient. The secret ingredient is that there’s no secret ingredient. That’s right, the dad then hops up on his soap box and delivers a soliloquy about assigning value is what makes something great, which then prompts Po to have his own revelation that there’s no special technique to be bestowed. He’s just naturally special (gag). So then he tells his dad a few times that there’s no secret ingredient, tells his friends, tells his master, tells anyone who will listen, and I’m pretty sure that by the end of the movie, I have to graduate to two hands in order to track how many times I’ve been told that there’s no secret ingredient. And then the clip right up there happens, which makes no sense in the grand scheme of the film, because Po has had one day of training, and at the end of the montage, you’re not entirely certain that he was actually trained. Right before their epic fight, Po kicks Tai Lung’s ass by falling down the stairs. Yup. Falling down the stairs, literally falling, as in trip, and landing fortuitously on Tai Lung over and over again. Upon reaching the bottom, they have this epic fight where Tai Lung explodes by getting his pinky tweaked. So, it doesn’t matter that Po had no training, or that everyone else who had dedicated their entire lives to the craft lost, and it doesn’t matter that Po never really actually exerted effort at any point, because that’s how strong the moral is. Strong enough to cause events to happen.

I realized that I said I would talk about the Iron Giant, and haven’t. Of course, the entire format of these blogs became greatly altered from what I had initially imagined. I suppose that in order to really impress how much I liked Coraline, I feel like I have to draw a very specific back drop as a sharp contrast. Perhaps I’ll talk about the Iron Giant some other time.

To get back to Coraline: if I had to take a guess at the moral, it’d be something about the dangers of being greedy. To not want to too much more or different than what you do have. The dangers of boredom, and how it can lead to vanity.

It’s not that Coraline doesn’t have a moral. It certainly does, it’s just that the moral is never expressly said, and it’s so central to the story that you have to deconstruct the story a little to identify the moral by name. And it’s really good. It’s much more like it used to be. If story were a path, the moral used to be the bricks used to pave that path, when a moral was to be had. Sometimes that path was more like a wild wooden path, covered by leaves and lined by trees. The standard cartoon nowadays is more like a sidewalk fallen into great disrepair: these large ugly moralizing boulders stuck in the center of the path that you have to edge around if you want to enjoy your walk.

I guess these blogs became a history of and critique of cartoons, and how Coraline is dissimilar to the current tradition. If I had had the opportunity to write this whole blog as one piece and edit it, I would have certainly made the history and critique their own blogs, and Coraline a separate blog. At any rate, I really enjoyed Coraline. A lot. Like I said, better than Wall-E, a universe of difference between Coraline and Kung Fu Panda, and the only movie made in the last two decades that can compete with it would be Iron Giant. You should really go see it, and while I don’t know if it’s necessary to see it in 3D, it was a pretty cool feature.


One Response to “This One is Much More Opinion Than Fact (Coraline Continued)”

  1. …and the moral of this story is… don’t let Po turn you into a jello man with his pinky.

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