Thursday, February 12, 2009


Henry Selick's magically macabre, stop-motion-animation, 3-D visual extravaganza Coraline (****) is the trippiest film in years. I know that last sentence was a mouthful, but Coraline is something special, a film that warrants heaping amounts of praise for its design and execution. If the story sucked (happily, it doesn't) I'd be recommending the film based solely on its technical merits. Hollywood is about to deluge cinemas with 3-D enhanced films; judging from what I saw in Coraline we're all in for a wild ride. 3-D elements run a risk of becoming merely a trick, and at worst, a distraction. I was left cold with what Robert Zemeckis did with Beowulf, but I was left in awe by the sheer spectacle of The Polar Express. I missed out on My Bloody Valentine (just can't bring my self to pay money for horror movies in the theater) but I heard I'm not missing much other than some great 3-D nudity. But with Coraline, Selick has set the bar very high for everyone else following him. The fact that his film is of the stop-motion animation variety only increases the acid-trip feeling that one might feel while watching a movie with these new "Real-D" 3-D glasses. Positioned as a dark children's story, Coraline is based on a book by famed author Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Stardust), and with Selick's Tim Burton-flavored sense of design and quirk, the film evolves into a startling fantasy about a emotionally and spiritually lost little girl who attempts to find happiness no matter how strange her journey becomes. It’s kind of like The Wizard of Oz on a sheet of LSD. Armed with a talented cast of voice performers which includes Dakota Fanning (as Coraline), Teri Hatcher, Ian McShayne, and Keith David, Selick has created a wondrous piece of entertainment, something that might frighten small kids (in a good, honest way), but something that will serve as a precedent for filmmaking of this sort.
Coraline is miserable. Her gardening magazine writing parents (Hatcher and John Hodgman) are too busy typing on their laptops to pay attention to their daughter. There's a strange kid named Wylie (Robert Bailey Jr.) who seems to be stalking Coraline with his mangy black cat (voiced with velvety distinction by David). Then there's the matter of Coraline's eccentric neighbors. There's Russian trapeze artist Mr. Bobinsky (McShayne) and two retired (and boozy) actresses named Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French) who figure into Coraline's search for happiness in unexpected ways. But the story takes flight when Coraline, late at night, discovers a strange miniature door in the wall of her living room (ala Being John Malkovich), which when entered, takes her on a vertigo-inducing trip into a house that resembles her own. Except, in this house, her "other-mother" and "other-father" are loving, caring souls who cook up a storm for Coraline and generally treat her with the love and warmth that she's so desperately seeking. But there's one off-putting detail to these alternate parents -- they have big, shiny, black buttons in place of eyes. The film pivots back and forth between Coraline in her normal house and in the “other house”, between her real parents and her "other parents," as she tries to decide where she wants to permanently live. Things get dangerous and supremely wacky as Coraline shuffles between the two realities -- where will she end up? And what are the potentially devious motives of her "other-mother"? Selick keeps his film zipping along, and while the narrative sagged slightly in its midsection, this 100 minute film rarely stops for a breath.

The subversive thing about the narrative of Coraline is how some viewers might interpret the story as an anti-drug parable or a reflection of a suicidal pre-teen who is struggling to find her own identity. There are deeper things going on under the surface of Selick and Gaiman's story, allowing the film to operate on multiple levels while it unfolds. You can choose to read into the subtext of the film or not -- upon reflection, the film has a sinister undertone that some people may not pick up on, or want to pick up on. Instead, most people will be justifiably blown-away by the look and atmosphere of the film. Using the painstaking process of stop-motion animation, Selick, as he did 15 years ago in The Nightmare Before Christmas, has created a world dominated by German expressionism, film noir, childish fantasy, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The cinematography by Pete Kozachik is exquisite as is the art direction by a team which includes Phil Brotherton, Jamie Caliri, Tom Proost, and Dawn Swiderski. But it's the pop-up-book quality of the 3-D experience that truly blasts Coraline off into another dimension. Rather than constantly having things poking out from the screen at the viewer, Selick uses the 3-D technique to enhance depth of field and the overall environment of everything in the frame -- it's a bold and gorgeous film to stare at. Any one shot could be screen captured, printed, framed, and hung on a wall; Salvador Dali would have had to change his pants after seeing this piece of work. By never condescending to his audience and downplaying cheap and obvious sentimentality, Selick has crafted a ravishing and totally immersive movie going experience. Don't miss it.


Wayne said...

This film looks terrific.

Actionman said...

It's a definite must-see. And a great way to start 2009 at the movies.

Unknown said...

Supposed to be a kids movie......hahaha, fricken Alice in Wonderland on ten hits of acid.

I could just see kids bawling during this creepy flick.