Movie Review: Coraline
By Josh Spiegel
February 11, 2009
For the most part, since its creation, 3-D filmmaking has been used simply to shock audiences. "Look at that! There's a huge bug trying to attack you!" "Hey, there's a knife being thrown at the screen!" "Well, how do you like that? Brendan Fraser's spitting out his backwash at us!" In the last few years, though, it's been more apparent that 3-D can and should be used for immersion. The recent re-release of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3-D proved that a film didn't need to have show-off effects to impress audiences.
This year, there will be far more 3-D viewing options than in most years at the theaters. Most have been made specifically to be seen with 3-D glasses, such as next month's Monsters Vs. Aliens, spearheaded by DreamWorks mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, a fan of the technology. However, the first shot of 2009 comes from author Neil Gaiman and director Henry Selick (also the helmer of Nightmare Before Christmas) with Coraline.
Based on the Gaiman novel, Coraline is set in Portland, Oregon, as the title character, a girl with adventurous tendencies voiced by Dakota Fanning, adjusts to living in a 150-year old mansion now split into apartments owned by some real oddballs. Coraline's loneliness is compounded by the fact that her parents (Teri Hatcher and Daily Show resident expert John Hodgman) are too focused on their writing to pay any attention to her. All Coraline has for company is her imagination, a stray cat, and the landlord's grandson, who annoys her constantly. Her imagination, however, is what gets her into serious trouble.
One day, Coraline finds a mysterious and tiny door that, once night falls, opens up into a portal leading to her "other" parents. In fact, the portal leads to a mirror image of the life she lives and her new house, except everything seems more colorful, more exciting, and more fun. The only problem? Everyone except for Coraline has buttons for eyes. What's worse, Coraline's other mother would very much like for Coraline to have buttons as eyes...or else. Coraline spends the rest of the film discovering exactly who her other mother is and how dangerous the mirror image of her life could be for her and for everyone around her.
No matter what else is said, Selick has created a beautiful world in Coraline. Gaiman's unique vision certainly helps this out, but Selick's skewed look on something as simple as a cat (seen here as a raggedy, thin, almost bug-like creature) excites the eye. The 3-D here is amazing; rarely do we ever get shocked because of the technology, though one of the few times it happens (a needle jumps out at the audience) occurs during the opening credits. Just as he proved in Nightmare, James and the Giant Peach, and sections of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Henry Selick is a visionary in animation, even if he's using one of the most primitive types available.
What's more amazing here is that, either because of the 3-D or just because of more modern means, the stop-motion animation is rarely noticeable. In Nightmare, it was much more clear that a character like Jack Skellington was herky-jerky, to a point. Here, though, everything is fluid, especially during the sequences set in the other apartments in the mansion, focusing on a pair of elder actresses (voiced by Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders) and a tall and muscular circus ringmaster (voiced by Ian McShane). What Henry Selick proves here is that the scope of 21st-century animation doesn't have to be simply 2-D animation and computer animation: stop-motion has a place.
The voice work is somewhat spotty, however, as the actors' vocal cadences are somewhat altered for the quirky tone and script. It took me a bit of getting used to John Hodgman talking slowly or to character actor Keith David (as the stray cat) not sounding his usual baritone all the time. Fanning and Hatcher, though, in the two biggest roles, are quite good. Hatcher in particular has the most difficult work to do: as Coraline's real mother, she's got to sound weary and tough, but not too evil; as Coraline's other mother, she's got to sound ultra-lovable and cutesy one moment and viciously cruel the next. She does, though, pull it off quite well. Fanning, sounding more grown-up, is appropriately prickly and defiant as the title character.
Coraline manages to be impressive on many levels, even when there's no color on screen (as when Coraline finds out what happens if she strays too far from the other mansion). It may not be as timeless as The Nightmare Before Christmas, but as a first attempt at making a 3-D film that doesn't seem gimmicky, it's a damn good start.