Coraline (2009)Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, some language and suggestive humor.
Starring the voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Ian McShane.
LVJeff's Rating: 9/10
Photo ©Focus Features. All rights reserved.
She's the New Girl
I'm surprised by Coraline in more ways than one -- happily surprised to be given the gift of a new, creative stop-motion animated movie, and curiously surprised about it being made in the first place. With studios pumping out more computer-animated features every year, it's a wonder that a stop-motion project could even get off the ground. Thank goodness there are artists like Henry Selick and his crew, who are willing to dedicate the time and energy to a painstaking craft. It took about four years to make Coraline -- sounds about right for any film of this sort -- and anytime one of these turns up, and turns up well, we should show gratitude for the treasure.
Selick, the credited director behind The Nightmare Before Christmas (and not Tim Burton, who served as the story creator and producer), was also responsible for James and the Giant Peach. With Coraline, he's adapting a story by fantasy writer Neil Gaiman. The tale about a young girl who moves into an old house with her drudging parents only to discover a portal to a happier alternate version of her universe could've been brought to the screen in a number of different ways, even, say, live action with special effects, but the kookiness and spookiness of this world seems particularly well-suited for stop-motion. Characters are given exaggerated proportions; the backgrounds pop with life, dimension, and color; and there's plenty of room to stretch the imagination while giving all of it that distinct tangibility of this medium.
Adding to the intrigue is that Coraline is the first of this kind of movie to be shot for 3-D viewing. The Nightmare Before Christmas has been recently presented for 3-D effects, but Coraline was shot with the mode in mind. It's actually employed subtly, which is a nice change of pace from the 3-D movies that decide the best way to show it off is to throw objects toward the audience. Coraline mostly uses the effect to increase its sense of depth, exaggerate some perspective, and only once in a while call attention to itself.
In techniques and aesthetics, the movie comes across as a wonder, with several particularly delightfully staged sequences (like the mouse circus and the great garden). Perhaps only in its story does it feel a little worn. The construct of a young girl finding herself in another world is familiar from The Wizard of Oz to Alice in Wonderland to most of Hayao Miyazaki's animated adventures; meanwhile, there's also the temptation to stay in the other world, though it might be masking something sinister. Coraline's take on this, though, appears fully modern -- the character herself is observant and uncommonly brave. Faced with a choice in which one feels clearly wrong, she has little conflict; tasked with challenges to defeat a force of evil, she does not lack any confidence and actually solves them with a level of determination and efficiency. She's the new girl, the kind who doesn't start with character handicaps, taking on an old story and putting an encouraging twist of empowerment on it.
It's worth noting, too, that a courageous main character like this should also draw out a stronger sense of scare from the forces against her. Frankly, Coraline is pretty frightening, especially later when it takes the images of familiar, comfortable figures and begins to warp them just enough to make them squirmingly unfamiliar (and, in some cases, disturbingly sad and withering). I wouldn't recommend taking small children to see this film unless they're already into freaky kinds of things (hey, some of them are). But at the same time I applaud Selick for taking this direction -- the best fairy tales were always meant to be scary, and Coraline isn't afraid to follow suit.
Coraline has a lot going for it, including great voice work from the likes of Teri Hatcher, Keith David, John Hodgman, and Ian McShane. But perhaps the most shrewd casting comes from voicing the main character with Dakota Fanning, a young actress who, like her onscreen counterpart here, is daring and poised. The Coraline character is a perfect combination of Fanning's assured, knowing performance and the expressiveness of a little, sculptable figurine with a big face and some real hand-sewn clothes. Coraline may be finding herself transported to an unreal universe, but her movie delivers the rare treat of an animation based in the dimensions and spaces of reality.
©Jeffrey Chen, Jan. 21, 2009