Too often I hem and haw and hedge and meander before getting to the point, so let’s jump ahead: Coraline is an absolute treasure. Not to mention, rich, dazzling, scary, and technically mind-boggling. Whether you see it in 2D or 3D, whether you’ve read Neil Gaiman’s book or not, whether you mind or don’t mind celebrity voice work, whether you’re a teenage Goth girl or a 20-something dreamer or a 30-something parent or a 40-something fanboy geek. When us critics whine about there never being any good movies out, this is the kind of thing that snaps us out of it and reminds us why we love pure film so much.
Now, with that out of the way, let me say that some critics and filmgoers have had or will have quibbles with Coraline as adapted by director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) from Gaiman’s novel. The stop-motion Coraline (i.e. puppet animation) has been accused of being too dark and creepy for younger kids (it probably is), of having a somewhat frantic and overwrought third act (it sort of does), but mostly of being long on visual spectacle (oh boy is it!) and short on the warmth of humanity—that it’s emotionally detached and cool.
That last charge is the most interesting. I do agree with it—as a fantasist in both comic books and prose fiction, Gaiman has always been more entranced by the dizzying, dark potential of epic imagination and storytelling than in the intricacies of the human heart. (I’m a devoted fan of Gaiman’s Sandman…his prose novels, eh, not so much.) And if Coraline prompts viewers to discuss that notion further, then that’s a testimony to the film’s artistic power, not a knock on it.
In the meantime, don’t let any of that dissuade you from giving Coraline a shot. This is a marvelous achievement, from the insane technical feat of stop-motion filming all of the visual splendor on display, to the way Selick captures the melancholy joy of solitary childhoods filled with exploration and flights of daydreaming fancy.
Coraline Jones, voiced perfectly by Dakota Fanning (and by that I mean you will never once stop and think “oh, it’s Dakota Fanning”), has moved into a remote boarding house in a desolate stretch of dead-November grayness. Her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgmen, both doing spot-on work) are busy and distracted—Mother pushing her away with pestered, sarcastic dismissal; Father a worn down, worn out shell.
Also on hand are the boarding house’s downstairs renters—a pair of aging burlesque beauties voiced by the British comedy team of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. And upstairs is Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), a still-virile circus performer who wrangles both a troupe of performing mice and his own wayward marbles. (Insert my usual frothing, hyperbolic praise of all things McShane here.)
So bored Coraline discovers a portal to a mirror world where she encounters the charming, attentive, and indulgent Other Mother and Other Father, welcoming doppelgangers of her real-world parents. This nocturnal Other World is, like Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island, full of cakes and contraptions, lavish meals and tickle fights. Oh, and everyone has black buttons instead of eyes. Sure, that’s a little creepy, but not a deal-breaker, right?
Riiiight. As in so many seemingly delightful fantasy worlds of escapism (think Pan’s Labyrinth of late, but also The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and so on), all is not on the up and up in Other Land. At first there are delicious nuggets of arsenic dripped here and there (for example, Other Mother’s blithe, cruelly dismissive solution for a playmate who talks too much), but soon the whole grim web begins to unravel. Coraline must spring into adventurous action, with the help of–and I say that as a dog-lover and cat-tolerater—one of the coolest felines ever (oozing Keith David’s dulcet jazz tones). Those who rightfully complain that Pixar has yet to create an intrepid girl hero need look no further than our Miss Coraline Jones.
It’s at this point, I should add, that Coraline gets way too eerie and nightmarish for children under a certain age—what that age is depends on the kid, but let’s just say that when everyone is revealed for what they really are, some of the images are sure to wander back into children’s subconscious at night. Some of it isn’t just straight-up scary monsters, but a general visual tone. When I was a kid I was completely freaked out and haunted by a Dr. Seuss story of a mysterious pair of body-less green pants. Coraline boasts many similar disconnected, unnerving instances where things just aren’t quite “right.” After all, it’s a film whose central motif is dolls and dead button eyes. These moments are what make the film so engrossing and rewarding for adults, but perhaps a little much for some kids.
The stop-motion nature of Coraline augments and enhances all of this. At points in the film you’ll remember it’s all painstakingly moved a sliver at a time and you’ll re-drop your jaw when you ponder what a task that must have been. But for the most part you’ll be too swept away by it all to worry about how they did it. And that works beautifully with the story: since your mind has already accepted the stop-motion world, it’s that much easier for it to slide right into the bizarre carnival oddities of Coraline’s Other World discovery.
Using poseable puppets (especially in 3D) also adds depth to the film. The CGI wonders of Pixar are staggering, but stop-motion gives Coraline an odd realness, a heft and presence. The hands-on animation allows Selick to wander through Gaiman’s imagination, but it also both grounds the story in something tangible and gives the tale yet another echo of otherworldliness. It’s the perfect combination of artifice and authenticity.
As with the very nature of stop-motion film making, Coraline may not always be smoothly flawless, but that’s the film’s charm and its point: after all, perfection is often not all it’s cracked up to be. There are times when you want your movies to be dreams piped directly into your fevered mind—even if a few nightmares slip in as well. And thanks to Gaiman and Selick, for those times you now have Coraline.