A film review by Craig J. Koban

CORALINE jjj
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2009, PG, 101 mins.

Coraline: Dakota Fanning / Mother/Other Mother: Teri Hatcher / Father/Other Father: John Hodgman / Mr. Bobinsky: Ian McShane / Wybie: Robert Bailey Jr. / Miss Spink: Jennifer Saunders / Miss Forcible: Dawn French / Cat: Keith David

Written and directed by Henry Selick / Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman

SCREENED IN
3D

CORALINE is an absolutely breathtaking Ė and frequently and refreshingly dark and chilling Ė explosion of artistic ingenuity and vivacious energy.  We are currently living in an animated film world dominated by computer rendered entertainments, and ones that more often than not have warmed over characters, ham invested sight gags and humor, and have storylines that seem almost preordained to only appease to five to ten-year old audience members.  

Whatís so appealing and ultimately winning about CORALINE is not just that its masterfully conceived and executed visual panache, but also the notion that it tells a story that is grim, unsettling, and surprisingly mature: this is one of the most beautifully rendered ominous looking films Iíve seen in long time, and thatís a sincere compliment.  The descriptors "cute" and "cuddly" certainly don't apply here: CORALINE is borderline squirm-inducing at times, especially for young viewers.

Those accolades, of course, can be chiefly bestowed towards the two men behind the scenes, writer/director Henry Selick (who made a serious name for himself which such landmark stop motion animated films like THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH) and British author Neil Gaiman, who conceived the 2002 fantast horror novella that the film is chiefly based upon.  Anyone who has picked up a copy of Gaimanís Hugo Award winning literary work will no doubt see its story paying distinct homage to works as far ranging as ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THE WIZARD OF OZ.  You may also recall Gaiman as the creator of STARDUST, which also became the noble minded, impressively mounted, but largely negligible, film adaptation in 2007.  Alas, we finally have a film that thoroughly treasures the authorís source material, and Henry Selick is just the sort of warped, unhinged, and audaciously ingenious animator to pull off Gaimanís cryptic and sometimes haunting storyline. 

One thing is absolutely certain within a few minutes of CORLAINE: this film would simply not work within the confines of the pristine sheen and technological precision of computer animation.  Adherence to that type of artifice works wonders for films like WALL-E and KUNG FU PANDA, but the kooky and gothic gravitas of Gaimanís world have never worked unless it was presented via stop motion animation, the least appreciated of all the cinematic genres.  I have always been a champion for these artists (the sheer volume of shots and time required to complete mere seconds of film would require the most patient of chap), but what made me respond to CORALINE so intently was how Selick and his design collaborators (cinematographer Pete Kozachik, effects supervisors Brian Vanít Hul, and animation head Anthony Scott) were able to find the perfect marriage between the erratic and vivacious stop motion techniques with the unsettling and frequently dreary story that they tell.  The way they both so thoroughly compliment one another is one of CORALINEís quiet triumphs. 

And what an impressive visual treat for the eyes this film is!  Not only is the film a technological marvel to savor throughout its 101 minutes, but the film also becomes something even more transcending when presented in Real-D (or New Agey 3-D), which only serves to make the whole palette of this film come even more eccentrically alive.  I have always believed that 3-D, like another other type of movie trickery, is often unfairly chastised as a gimmick or hook to get people in the theatres (which is certainly valid, from certain points of view).  However, when harnessed just right, 3-D is like any other special and visual effects technology when it is utilized to compliment and add flavor to the storyÖand thatís precisely what Selick and company have so marvelously achieved with their finished product.  While thankfully avoiding the obviousness of in-your-face shots that too many lame 3-D efforts have taken pains to provide, Selick keenly understands how to take full advantage of the process without overdoing it to further unleash his macabre vision of CORALINE:  Thankfully, the 3D rarely becomes a teeth-grating distraction and instead becomes even more deeply immersing as a direct result.  After awhile, you simply begin to forget that the process is being used at all in the film because the whole experience is so transfixing.

Perhaps even more memorable is how Selickís artistic vision also bares success on the story and themes front.  CORALINE is not a happy-go-lucky animated tale of joyous frivolity.  By contrast, the story seems to tap in the deepest recesses of childhood traumas and nightmares: fear of the unknown, fear of being trapped in a world that you cannot control, fear and resentment of parental authority, and ultimately fear of abandonment.  The fact that CORALINE manages to be a stunning visual tour de force while telling a story that has solid ruminations on parenting, individuality, and deep childhood fears is to its credit.  Yes, the movie is predominately about a young, lonely, and naÔve girl that gets whisked away to a strange magical world that has hideous figures that want to pluck her eyes out and replace them with buttons (remember, I said this was macabre), but the filmís strongest virtues are how is plays its themes solemnly and without any pretension of making it too saccharine to become more kid friendly.  More than anything, I appreciated CORALINEís underlining and straight-laced seriousness with the proceedings,  

The film quickly introduces us to a blue haired young girl named Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) who has been relocated by her mother (Teri Hatcher) and father (John Hodgman) to a 150-year-old mansion in Oregon, separating her from all of her past friends.  Coraline is an introverted and moody figure, but it should be noted that she is not the type of dime-a-dozen and clean pre-pubescent heroines that typically dominated these types of films.  She has attitude and a nasty spunk about her.  When she is not lashing out at her mother and father for not paying enough attention to her, she is exploring the house and its surroundings.  Some of her neighbours are really odd (make that really, really odd), like the wormy Wybie Lovat (Robert Bailey Jr.) and his eerie black cat, two strange old sisters (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) that live in the lower levels of the mansion, and the very weird looking circus man named Mr. Bobinsky (the great Ian McShane) living upstairs.  His has the upper body of a semi-truck driver and the lower build of a ballet dancer.  

However peculiar her neighbours are, they are nothing compared to Coraline's journey through a particular portal in her home.  On one chance day she discovers a secret hidden door that manages to transport her to an alternate version of her home and outside environment where she meets better and more idealized versions of her mother and father (the pair donít bicker as much, make better food, and seem to curiously cater to all of Coralineís needs and whims).  At first, the sight of her parental clones is kind of ghastly (they outwardly appear identical to the real world versions, aside from having buttons sewn into their eyes), not to mention that the fantasy version of them greatly appeases to her subconscious aspirations of how she hopes her real mom and dad would behave.  In the real world the pair are often too preoccupied with their computers, their jobs, and other concerns to give Coraline so much as a caring glance.  However, Coraline later discovers that there are actually twisted and evil ulterior motives to her parental doppelgangers, which could spell doom to her real mom and dad in the process. 

At times it could be said that the buried message of CORALINE is not all that buried at all:  Notions of thereís "no place like home", "be careful what you wish for" and "the power of oneís imagination as a potentially devious force" sometimes feels a bit to telegraphed.  However, that is not to say that CORALINE wears itself out as a result.  The film is one of the best examples of family entertainment in the way it manages to tell a fairly timeless story with patience, intelligence, and personality.  This is not a standard tale of a young girlís journey that inordinately goes from point A to B and then to a rosy conclusion.  The film is a pleasure for how it elicits as sense of being transported on a mysteries journey for the audience members: there are times where youíre never really quite sure where the film will take you next. 

The voice performances I think may be lost in the limelight of the filmís aesthetics, which would be a shame, but they too should be complimented for being played straight and not for obvious chuckles.  What I liked is how they avoid some of the more annoying habits that other voice talent embark in with animated features (over-the-top vocals, tired and desperate ad-libbed attempts at merriment, and condescending wisecracks).  Instead of going for obvious choices, Selick went for good actors who could play their parts as low key as possible (with the exception of Ian McShane, who's gloriously batty) to compliment the filmís grim allure.  Too much of a happy-go-lucky approach would have undermined the whole disturbing feel of the film. 

But, in the end, the filmís unspeakable beauty and tremendous outpouring of creativity is its proud accomplishment, and there is rarely a second in CORALINE that does not inspire our natural wonder and awe.   There are too many unforgettable and superbly rendered moments, but ones that stand out are a theatre filled with terrier spectators (way more creepy than described); a very boisterous and revealing stage show involving Corlaineís strange old sister neighbours; a hauntingly gorgeous and impeccably detailed sequence involving an entire backyard orchard blooming to life under the moonlight; and so on.  Even the whole design of the characters themselves shows innovation, with their elongated necks and torsos and oddly proportioned bodies: all of this adds considerably to the filmís stunning originality and persistence of vision.   I celebrate when films like this are so generous with their eye candy, and CORALINE is an absolutely eye popping exercise in pain-staking detail: there is always something occupying the frame to engage in.  And to witness the film in a properly calibrated Real-D Digital theatre only helps to accentuate Selickís refreshingly off-kiltered artistic approach.  Few animated films Ė whether rendered with hand drawn animation or with computers Ė have rarely felt as ethereally alive as an entity as this one.  

CORALINE falls a bit short of animated masterpiece status: It's a little too long (by about ten minutes) for its own good and it seems to stumble towards a satisfying conclusion.  Then there is also the sidekick character of  Wybie Lovat (a film creation not appearing in Gaimanís text) that never feels like a fully realized persona in the story (he appears and disappears when the story deems it necessary).  Alas, these are minor quibbles, because CORALINE is such an accomplished and consummately original animated film through and through:  Itís a work that is punctuated by a flawless conglomeration of old school techniques (stop motion) with modern movie making advancements (Real-D) to create one of the most forcefully vibrant sensations of three-dimensionality Iíve seen in an animated feature.  Even more, there is rarely a second while watching this film where you donít feel the love and passion of the artists behind the scenes with both crafting unconventional visuals and morphing them with an oddly perverse and emotionally charged storyline.  

Henry Selick - like all visionary filmmakers - understands his process and wants to wow us from scene to scene, to be sure, but CORALINE is also a rare film that kind of lurks up slowly and confidently on filmgoers with its artifice and themes.  The film is able to turn unconscious childhood terrors and horrors into a series of beguiling and transfixing images that, aside from being incredibly gratifying to look at, also help to serve as a metaphor for the main characterís troublesome emotional state.  Animated films are infrequently as inspired and stimulating as this one; its premise is certainly not for wee young tykes, but it thanklessly does not condescend older viewers that want to be whisked away into its grotesque menagerie of the unknown. 

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