The Coen Project Part 2: Raising Arizona

After seeing Blood Simple, you’d be likely to peg Joel and Ethan Coen simply as promising writer-directors of drama. Three years later (1987), you’d be proven very wrong. When the brothers set out to make their second film, their primary goal was to create something as different from their debut as possible. Since Blood Simple was dark and realistic, the obvious choice of direction was a comedy. Enter Raising Arizona. 

At least in the context of film and television, the American Southwest often feels like blank slate where anything can happen. Maybe it’s the literal blankness of the desert, maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s the sparseness of population. Could you imagine Breaking Bad taking place in, say, Boston? New Mexico and Arizona are places where you can believe a high school teacher getting away with selling meth, or a young couple stealing a baby to cope with infertility. It’s the perfect place to stage a comedy about crazy people doing crazy things.

With a bigger but still modest budget of $5 million to work with, Joel and Ethan don’t waste a single frame: an eleven-minute voice-over sequence packs in an entire act of narrative before the opening credits even roll. We’re introduced to convenience store robber H.I. “Hi” McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) who meets police officer Edwina (Holly Hunter) while having his mug shot taken. Over the course of several repeat offences, the pair fall for each other and marry after Hi gets out of jail and vows to keep on the straight and narrow. They decide that they should have a child, reasoning that “…every day we kept a child out of the world was a day he might later regret having missed.” Alas, Ed is infertile: “her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase,” laments Hi.

Devastated by their rejection from adoption agencies due to Hi’s delinquency, the unhappy couple hear an interesting news flash: local furniture mogul Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) and his wife Florence (Lynne Kitei)  have welcomed quintuplets. Hi and Ed figure that since five is a lot of children, the parents would not “overly” miss one. They head out to get them a baby, and the insanity that follows never lets up.

In my last post I talked a little bit about cartoons, and how they’re typically driven by characters rather than situations. The live-action comedies that I enjoy the most take a similar approach, turning a handful oddballs loose in some environment and seeing how they bounce off of each other.  Raising Arizona does this in a more literally cartoony way than a typical comedy. Many of the characters play on cartoon archetypes: Hi is a human Wile E. Coyote, disheveled and running around the desert, a constant victim of his own ineptitude. John Goodman and William Forsythe play Hi’s pals Gale and Evelle, a pair of prison escapees who aren’t far off from trouble-making cartoon duos like Ren and Stimpy or Pinky and the Brain, although Goodman comes off more Foghorn Leghorn than anything else. Hell, the baby quints even have cartoon names: Harry, Barry, Larry, Garry, and Nathan Jr (he’s an awful damn good one).

In stark contrast to Blood Simple’s naturalistic dialog, the characters all have eccentric ways of speaking, a mix of hick talk with solemnly biblical proclamations. The juxtaposition of lower-class criminals speaking in such a heightened manner drives much of the film’s humor. In an interview the Coens said that the dialog sprang from a mix of regional dialect and what they imagined these people would be reading, namely the newspaper and the Bible. 

Although little Nathan Jr. is the MacGuffin that drives the action, Raising Arizona’s central conflict isn’t really about a baby, it’s about Hi’s struggle between what he believes to be his innate criminal nature and his desire to become stable and respectable, motivated by his love of Ed. Maybe the funniest way this inner battle plays out is the scene where he expounds upon how he’s a changed man while simultaneously shoving several firearms into his pants. He just can’t help himself. 

It might be worth talking about why Hi and his menacing biker antagonist Leonard Smalls (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb) share the same Woody Woodpecker tattoo. I’m wary about delving into speculation about certain symbols within the Coen Brothers’ films, mostly because from what I’ve read they tend not to put as much specific meaning into them as their fans would like to believe. That said, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Smalls is a manifestation of Hi’s criminal side. A lot of people online suggest that Smalls is actually Hi’s father or brother, but that kind of enters the realm of fan theory.  I just love the fact that it’s Woody Woodpecker, because it’s an explicit cartoon reference in a deliberately cartoony movie.


Stray Observations:

  • The Coens had originally planned to film The Hudsucker Proxy next, but the budget it would’ve required was too large for their studio. If you look closely at the jumpsuits worn at Hi’s job, you can see a “Hudsucker Industries” label.
  • I love the emergence of the Coen’s tendency to repeat a certain phrase or word over and over, like “sombitch” and Nathan Arizona’s incessant use of “butt”.
  • Is it just me, or is Gale and Evelle’s emergence from the mud outside of the prison eerily similar the spawning of the Uruk-hai in Lord of the Rings ?
  • Favorite moment: Ed feeling the need to blare her police siren while rushing to inform Hi that she’s “barren”.

Netflix Pick: Chicken Little

In 2005, then Pixar chairman Steve Jobs and Disney CEO Robert Iger were in the middle of negotiating over the extension of the deal in which Disney marketed and distributed Pixar’s films, an already impressive roster including Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, and most recently 2004’s The Incredibles. The talks hinged on the release of Disney’s first CG animated film produced in-house: Chicken Little, a loose adaptation of the sky-is-falling children’s tale. If the film was successful, Disney could argue that they didn’t have to depend on Pixar for 3D content, giving them the upper hand in the negotiations.

Chicken Little made $40 million in its opening weekend, tying The Lion King for Disney Animation’s biggest opener. While it didn’t fare as well with critics, it struck some kind of chord with thirteen-year-old me and my brothers: we watched our DVD copy over and over again and quoted it endlessly. When I saw it pop up on Netflix, I had to check it out to see if it held up.

For the past five or so years, we’ve all gotten used to Disney Animation cranking out beautiful, well-made CG features. They’ve done this in large part by embracing the narrative and artistic sensibilities of Disney’s hand-drawn classics. Although they don’t adhere strictly to their source material, mega-hits like Tangled and Frozen are essentially earnest musical retellings of fairytales (Rapunzel and The Snow Queen, respectively).

Disney didn’t arrive at this strategy overnight. At the outset, they tried to replicate the success of the less traditional offerings from Dreamworks and Pixar. From its opening frames, Chicken Little makes a concerted effort to distance itself from Disney’s old fairytale tropes, mocking both the classic storybook opening introduction and the beginning of Lion King.

From there we’re thrown straight into the inciting incident, in which a diminutive high-school aged Chicken Little (Zach Braff) insists that he’s seen a stop sign shaped chunk of the sky on the ground, causing panic and destruction in the animal town of Oakey Oaks. Little’s embarrassed father Buck Cluck (Gary Marshall) plays it off as an innocent gaffe, but Little can’t quite live it down. This makes high school rough for him and his misfit pals Abbey Mallard (Joan Cusack, an Ugly Duckling), Runt of the Litter (a rotund piglet), and Fish Out of Water (a fish wearing a diving helmet full of water).

After an unlikely baseball victory puts Little back in his father’s and the town’s good graces, another chunk of sky crash-lands in his bedroom. Turns out it’s actually a lost cloaking panel from an extraterrestrial spacecraft. From there the story becomes a goofy take on a War of the Worlds style alien invasion plot.

Compared to the recent sweeping epics like Frozen or Moana and the serious social parable Zootopia, Chicken Little feels like a feature-length Saturday morning cartoon, but that’s what makes it so much fun. As in the best cartoons, the humor comes from the characters, who are much broader comedically than those in typical Disney films. Runt of the Litter, played by the always funny Steve Zahn, is a perpetual over-reactor with a penchant for classic pop music. The wonderfully expressive Fish out of Water is unfazed and delighted by everything that happens to him, up to and including being abducted by aliens. He gets some of the best one-off bits, including constructing an Empire State Building out of homework papers and re-enacting the climactic scene of King Kong while the other characters have a serious discussion. My favorite character as a kid was the snotty popular-girl antagonist Foxy Loxy, whose pre-dodgeball declaration “PUMP IT, PUMP IT, PUMP IT UP!” became a go-to celebratory mantra for me and my brothers. She’s still pretty damn funny.

In addition to the cartoony fun, Chicken Little actually has a decently affecting emotional core in the form of Chicken Little and Buck Cluck’s relationship arc. Countless animated films are about the importance of family, whether they be biological or those constructed from unlikely companions. This can often feel a little vague and tacked-on, but Chicken Little narrows the focus down to the relationship between a father and son, and the social expectations and anxieties that go along with it. 

The CG doesn’t hold up nearly as well as Pixar movies from the same time: the textures, fur simulation, and fluid simulations are all clunky and primitive looking by comparison.  Nearly all of the non-hero characters are variations on the same generic animal model. Some of these cookie-cutter characters even have speaking roles, like the announcer at the baseball game. But none of this really distracts from Chicken Little’s strengths in terms of humor and characters. It’s an awfully fun movie with a great heart. 

Stray Observations:

  • Some clever foreshadowing — check out the pattern on Chicken Little’s bedspread.
  • Disney originally produced Chicken Little as a Silly Symphony short in 1943, an allegory about the dangers of believing in rumors during wartime. It’s pretty dark — Foxy Loxy literally reads passages from Mein Kampf. If you look at the title card, you can see the same hexagonal pattern seen in the 2005 movie. Either that’s a weird coincidence, or the Disney designers took some inspiration from it.
  • This movie definitely relies heavily on musical montages, but I’ll forgive it because they’re so much fun. I had that Barenaked Ladies song stuck in my head for days.
  • It’s pretty incredible to compare Chicken Littles primitive animal crowds animation  to the crowds work in last year’s Zootopia, in which according to fxguide featured 64 different species and 800,000 different character models.
  • For some reason, Abbey Mallard’s reaction to the cloaking panel cracks me up every time: “Bizarre!”