Monday, December 26, 2011

No, It's Not Tim Burton, But Henry Selick's Coraline Might As Well Be!

The Good: Great animation (mostly), Interesting and disturbing story, Looks wonderful in 3-D
The Bad: Very simple plot and character elements, Pacing issues
The Basics: Generally well-animated and certainly creepy, Coraline is a predictable but enjoyable animated fairy tale.

As the opening credits of Coraline began to roll, I found myself more and more impressed with director Tim Burton. After a string of movies like Corpse Bride (reviewed here!), he was completely switching up his cast in favor of some completely new players. I was so proud of him, right up until the moment that I read that Tim Burton had nothing at all to do with Coraline; it was written for the screen and directed by Henry Selick, based upon a book by famed author and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman. So, despite all of the similarities in form to the artistic teams who have worked with Tim Burton, Coraline is not one of his works.

In some ways, though, it might as well be. At the end of my three premiere day (my first such outing since my college days!) I took in Coraline at a theater that was showing it in 3-D. Given the option, I may only encourage those who have the choice to see it this way. There are several visual effects that are enhanced by the 3D glasses, including the one that follows the credits. So, if it is not a Tim Burton flick, but it looks like one and has the dark Burtonesque mood, music and vision, what is Coraline?

Coraline Jones is a girl who has been forced to move with her neglectful parents from Pontiac, Michigan to the Pink Palace Apartments. There, the blue-haired girl goes in search of a well and she finds herself stalked by a mangy black cat and a local boy, Wybie Lovat. Wybie and his cat are put off by the angry and cynical Coraline, who goes home to her mother and father, who are busy working on a seed catalog and have no real interest in attending to Coraline. So, Coraline explores the house and she finds a small, secret doorway. Passing through the doorway, she finds herself in an alternate world, where the people appear to be dolls, with button eyes. In that world, Other Mom cooks and pays attention to Coraline and Other Father sings to Coraline while he is played by a piano.

Coraline wakes up the first morning after her journey to the Other World and finds herself more disenchanted with the real world. In reality, she is forced to attend school with two aged ex-vaudevillians Miss Spink and Miss Forcible and she returns some mixed up mail to her deranged upstairs neighbor the Amazing Bobinsky, who is trying to train mice to perform in a circus act. Coraline returns at night through the doorway to the Other World where she becomes a part of Spink and Forcible's act and pals around with a silent and attentive Other Wybie. They delight in the Other Bobinsky's mice circus and Coraline gladly tells Other Mother that she would like to stay. Staying, though, comes with a price; her eyes, which Other Mother wants to replace with buttons and as Coraline attempts desperately to leave the Other World, she finds the reality deteriorating into a nightmare.

Coraline is a visually intriguing and conceptually scary movie, but it is not without its flaws. This is basically a combination of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (reviewed here!) - in that there is a simple doorway to pass into a fanciful world through - and The Wizard Of Oz, in that the new world the protagonist finds herself in is largely made up of wish fulfillment. Animate it with muted colors and freakish stylized bodies for the various characters populating both worlds and you have Coraline. The thing is, while Coraline is enjoyable, it is hardly as flawless or incredible as some might have one believe. In fact, the movie is largely predictable in the way virtually every fairy tale has become.

First, the Other World is quite obviously the product of pure wish fulfillment. While Coraline's Father is a fairly poor cook who serves her porridge, Other Mother cooks turkey and cakes. Other Mother and Other Father are attentive to Coraline, planting gardens in the shape of the girl and Other Wybie - whom Coraline feels is not listening to her in the real world - is attentive because all he is able to do is listen to her. The list goes on and on, but it is clear that Other World revolves around Coraline and it does not take long before it becomes perfectly clear that the purpose is that someone or something wants Coraline to stay there.

Unfortunately, Coraline has some pacing issues. While the film takes its time clearly establishing its precepts and the characters, it soon becomes tedious, especially in the Other World. There there is a repetition of concepts that the viewer will already understand, from the reuse of the same tunnel shot to Coraline taking multiple cotton candy cannon shots off Other Wybie. We get it and there is a lot of repetition with Coraline getting what she wants from Other Mother before finally the world begins to unravel.

Also problematic is the character of Coraline herself. She is not an innocent and she is not entirely likable. Instead, Coraline is somewhat bratty, demanding in her childish way something of a monopoly on the time of her parents. For sure, it would be great if either or both parents could prioritize her, but they are working people and it seems like Coraline does not get that in any meaningful way. The personality problem with Coraline is pretty extreme when Wybie enters the picture. He is a shy, friendly kid and Coraline lashes out at him without any good reason. Still, Wybie brings her a doll that looks suspiciously like her and still Coraline treats the boy like dirt.

As for the animation style, it is enjoyable and creepy, but it is not anything that most cinema aficionados will not have seen before. Here the works of Tim Burton and the animators for the Puffs tissue commercials have spoiled us; the animation in Coraline is much the same. The characters have big, round heads, giant eyes and dainty pointed noses. It is a mix of saccharine cute and creepy. Watching Coraline, there were several moments where the animation was choppy - for example one of the times when Coraline is ascending the stairs from the downstairs neighbors her movements are not fluid - and as a result, it was not the absolute visual marvel it could have been. That said, it was fun and easy to watch and the creepout factor of the Other World taking a turn toward the demented worked quite well.

As an animated feature, there is very little one might say about the acting. The timing is generally well-achieved so the animated lips more or less meet up with the words. The talents of recognizable voices Teri Hatcher, Ian McShane and Keith David are present and add real gravitas to several moments throughout the movie. But it is Dakota Fanning who has the most to do as the title character. Fanning, who was perfect and perky as the wise-beyond-her-years girl in I Am Sam has grown up a bit and what is most impressive about her work is how emotive she actually is able to be in Coraline. As Coraline, she realistically takes the viewer on the emotive journey from bratty neglected girl to appreciative heroine and she does it though a wide range of expressive vocalizations that clearly develop the character as much as she can be.

Unfortunately, this is not an extensive amount by any means. Largely, Coraline is a fairy tale and as a result, it is more about sending the cautionary message of "be careful what you wish for" as opposed to making impressive or unique character statements or growth moments. Still, it works for what it is and those who like darker animated works will find much to like with Coraline. After a day of duds at the theater, it was awful nice to end on such a high note.

On DVD, Coraline comes with 3-D glasses, a featurette on the making of the film and a commentary track, which is informative and fun. In addition to the movie trailers, there are trailers for a few similar forthcoming films and the featurette and commentary tracks are valuable for anyone who enjoyed the film or is a fan of Neil Gaiman's works.

For similarly strange films, please check out my reviews of:
The City Of Lost Children
The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus
Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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