My head is spinning and my imagination is exhausted, even twelve hours after seeing Henry Selick’s wonderful Coraline, a 3-D stop-motion animated film that tells a very Alice in Wonderland-esque story. It took Selick four years to make the film, and it shows through the film’s meticulous attention to detail and all-around technical perfection. But that’s only the beginning of my admiration for Coraline, a movie (not unlike last year’s In Bruges) that seems way too good for its early-February release.
Based on a 2002 novella by Neil Gaiman, Coraline is certainly darker than your average family film, conjuring images that are at once startling, creepy, and often very funny. The only work of Gaiman’s that I have been very familiar with up to this point is his Sandman comics series, but it’s enough to know that he’s a brilliant and endlessly creative writer. To know that both of these concotions are the work of the same artist is of no surprise to me.
Coraline starts with the Jones family moving into their new apartment. We meet Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning), a spunky young girl, as she steps outside on a gray gloomy day (there aren’t really any bright sunny days in this one), using a stick as a divining rod to find a nearby well, all the while being followed by a mysterious and sickly-looking cat. She finds the well, but not before being abrasively introduced to the charmingly annoying (or perhaps the other way around) boy-next-door Wyborn. The boy’s name is indicative of the same frustrated neglect that Coraline’s own parents have for her, and it’s possible that she might have a kindred spirit in poor ol’ Wybie. If only he wasn’t so damn chatty…
Coraline returns home to her parents, only to be shooed away by both of them. Her mother (voiced by Teri Hatcher) is busy writing about gardening and her father (John Hodgman) is…also busy writing about gardening. Sufficed to say, neither of them are ever actually gardening. Coraline goes to bed that night, frustrated and alone. That is, until she follows the white rabbit, er, several mice downstairs, and watches them disappear into a very small door in the wall of the living room. She opens the door to find an illuminated tunnel, leading into a mysterious other room. Being the adventurous girl that she is, Coraline crawls through the tunnel, surprised when she comes out the other side into the exact same room. Sort of.
Coraline finds herself in an alternate version of her reality, one where her parents have time for her, sing to her, and feed her and give her everything her heart desires. It’s practically a perfect world and Coraline is, understandably, in no rush to leave. There is one odd little detail: all the people have buttons in place of their eyes. Her parents, neighbors, the photograph of the friends she left behind after the move– all have button-eyes. She goes to bed, her Other Mother and her Other Father, fondly tucking her in, only to wake up the next morning back in her what she can only assume is the one and only reality…right??
The plot takes some more whacky turns as the Other world battles against Coraline’s reality for control over her soul, and along the way Coraline meets several hilariously deranged and entertaining characters, including Mr. Bodinsky (voiced by Ian McShane), an oddly disproportionate vaudevillian whose trained dancing mice are the ones leading Coraline to the Other world night after night.
It’s a consistently creative story from a couple of consistently creative minds. The film’s dark sense of humor is charming where it could have been abrasive — try and find another movie that contains a swarm of red-eyed Scottish terrier bats! But what really sets it apart from just about anything else of its ilk, is its intelligent thematic structure. Coraline’s Other world, at its most appealing, is made up of all the people, places, and things in her life, hand-crafted (quite literally) to fit Coraline’s most selfish desires (why, just look what they do to poor Wybie!) But the film is far more than simply a cautionary be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale (despite what the tag line might tell you). Every single element that makes up Coraline always seems to be subtly countered by another.
Sharp dialogue and clever motifs run rampant throughout the film, like the connective tissue holding it all together. The details are spot-on! For every mangy dog there’s a dignified feline, for every vicous cat there’s a poor mouse, and for every cute little mouse there’s a big ugly rat. The parallel between the well and the tunnel to the Other world is alone enough to put me in awe of the expert craftsmanship of the storytelling. If there was ever a family film you could write a thesis on, you can bet it’d probably be Coraline.
And the visuals! What could I possibly say that can do justice to the gorgeous stop-motion animation and the stunning design of everything on display here? Selick, who previously directed the stop-motion films The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, has created his undisputable masterpiece, not only as a film in its own right, but as a wondrous visual achievement. Having not read Gaiman’s original novella, I can only imagine what the descriptions might have been like for the bizarre and surreal images on display here and, more than that, I can only imagine how the filmic translation of them could have gone horribly wrong in the hands of a less capable filmmaker. It’s the kind of story where the visual element increases the sense of wonder to the heights necessary to fully realize the thematic weight of every delightfully dreary drop. Selick pulls it off like the pro he is.
Is it a perfect film? It’s damn close. Some pacing issues create an awkward false ending, and the second climax we’re treated to doesn’t quite live up to the one from seven minutes prior, but this is a small complaint, and it’s not something many are likely to notice–and the thing about pacing is if you don’t notice it, then it’s pretty good. Frankly, I was more just glad to see that the film wasn’t quite done yet.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a 3-D film–the first stop-motion 3-D film ever. However, it’s not available in 3-D everywhere. It must be said, though, that if you can seek the film out in 3-D, please do! It’s a terrifically orchestrated 3-D presentation that works the medium in more subtle ways than you might expect. It rarely plays out any flying-at-the-screen gags, and when it does, it’s tasteful and appropriate. It’s a terrific little film, that will translate just fine on DVD, but nothing can match the feeling of allowing this film wrap itself up around you, creating an experience that is far larger and greater than simply “catching a flick.”
Coraline is an inspired and boundlessly imaginative picture that I can’t stop thinking about. The atrocious remake of Friday the 13th quite triumphantly claimed the top spot at the box office this weekend; I guess that’s just what the kids are into these days. But on the off-chance (statistically, of course) you’d like to see something both you and your brain can enjoy, this film deserves a look.