Wednesday, February 25, 2009

In Theaters: Coraline

Coraline poster and link to IMPAwards
CORALINE is a film both familiar and new. Even if you haven’t read the novel by Neil Gaiman, you’ll recognize the story; a little girl dislikes her home life and escapes into a fantasy world, only to find that the fantasy is far from what it’s cracked up to be. But CORALINE looks and feels different from most takes on the story, and most animated children’s films of the past few years. It’s eerie, dark, and if it seems a bit tailor-made for the Hot Topic crowd at times, it’s a look that suits the story. Director Henry Selick, who also wrote the screenplay, has crafted a beautiful and atmospheric wonder of a picture, one apparently best seen in 3-D but yet again this wasn’t an option for me. I’m not sure what I missed, but the film is a charmer.

Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is a bored girl who has moved with her parents into an old creaky house, apparently so that her dad (John Hodgman) and mom (Teri Hatcher) can work writing material for gardening catalogs, even though the weather’s too bad for them to do actual gardening and mom isn’t fond of dirt in any case. While exploring the house, Coraline discovers a doll that looks like her, and later a small door that, though blocked most of the time, sometimes opens into another version of the house, this one bright and cheery. Her Other Mother and Other Father, both with buttons in their eyes, want nothing more than to please Coraline; they cook fabulous meals and build wonders inside and outside the house. However, it becomes clear that the Other parents want Coraline to stay with them forever, and to do so she needs buttons sewn into her own eyes. Coraline balks at this for obvious reasons, but as she tries to escape, she finds that the Other Mother is something much more ancient, sinister, and powerful than she appears.

Some of the style of CORALINE is recognizable from Henry Selick’s earlier films; the characters have thin limbs (for the most part) and large faces, always slightly askew. The level of detail seems to have increased from NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and CORPSE BRIDE (note to self: I have to catch JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH in full one of these days), and despite a small scope- nearly everything takes place in and around the old house and its interdimensional equivalent- the sets are wonderfully intricate, and even in two dimensions the world of the film has a tantalizing depth. The modulation of color within the film to represent the differences between the two worlds is wonderfully subtle, striking a strong middle ground far from both the bright neons of most modern animated films and the desaturated digital-graded world of much live action.

So it’s a visual wonder, but how does it work on the human level? Well, I think it handles this kind of story better than most. Coraline is well-established in early scenes with her parents and local put-upon kid Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), not in the novel but a memorable character in his own right. She’s smart but easily bored, but at the same time her issues with her parents are more than just pre-adolescent pouting- they’re deep in work and genuinely neglecting her, not because they’re terrible parents but because they’re in a bad phase. Good voice acting and subtle animation help keep the characters believable enough to ground the story despite its fantastic elements, and some of the supporting cast are just fun, like Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders as two retired burlesque performers.

I’m probably being too intellectual in my analysis, though, because CORALINE is really a fun and absorbing experience more than anything. It’s a world that you inhabit for a short period, and come out with fond memories. There simply isn’t a lot I can write about it, but it’s funny, it’s atmospheric, it’s slick, and it’s memorable. A great start to the new year, and only two months in.

From the novel by Neil Gaiman
Written for the screen and Directed by Henry Selick
Grade: A-

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