Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman, Ian McShane
Henry Selick (based upon novel by Neil Gaiman)
There is only one word I can think of to describe Henry Selick's "Coraline"...
Selick, who set the bar for stop-motion capture filmmaking with "The Nightmare Before Christmas" 16 years ago, raises the bar considerably with the wondrously designed, impeccably crafted "Coraline."
Coraline is an 11-year-old girl whose family moves to this big ole' house in Oregon. Coraline doesn't particularly care for the house and, at times, doesn't particularly care for her family. Out of boredom, she goes exploring and discovers a trapdoor that leads her to a bizarre world where she encounters a family an awful lot like her own only better, or at least she initially believes.
Based upon a novel by Neil Gaiman, "Coraline" is a dark fantasy...a fairy tale both sordid and serene. Coraline (Dakota Fanning) is enthralled by this fantasy world, where such unnecessary things as school and work are replaced by such fantastical things as parents who seemingly laugh and care about her and she's surrounded by shiny and happy things such as circuses and pianos, flowers and cakes. This magical, mystical world is beautifully brought to life and Selick pays as much attention to the film's story as its visual presentation.
Coraline's real-life parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) largely neglect her, and Coraline is quickly seduced by this attractive new world where her presence is celebrated.
Of course, as we often learn in such dark fairy tales, there is always a price to be exacted for living one's fantasy and soon Coraline begins to experience the darker side of her fantasy world and the pseudo-mother with the black button eyes who wants to completely possess her.
Selick has never really gotten the attention he deserves as a filmmaker, having created such masterful animated films as "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach." Truth be told, even I have proven guilty of considering "The Nightmare Before Christmas" a Tim Burton film when, in fact, Burton only produced the film.
There are those who may very well fault the film for its Coenesque script, a storyline that doesn't always connect one to the characters themselves. Indeed, it is much easier to connect to the world that Selick has created rather than Coraline, her family or the various eccentrics that surround them.
Yet, much like a Coen Brothers film or, for that matter, a Tim Burton film, Selick realizes that if we bond too strongly with any individual character then the story itself begins to dissolve. We cannot become fully absorbed into the world created if we are allowed to focus our energies, our thoughts, our emotions on any one aspect of the world.
Instead, we must allow ourselves to be wholly integrated into both fantasy and reality in their entirety...only then can we fully appreciate the story as it unfolds.
In other words, "Coraline" is imaginative, daring and intelligent filmmaking devoid of Hollywood manipulations and greeting card sentiments.
The entire vocal cast is outstanding, most notably Dakota Fanning's dizzying portrayal of the young girl. Along with Hatcher and Hodgman, Ian McShane is marvelous as the proprietor of a mouse circus who shares the big ole' house. Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders also do nicely as retired vaudevillians who also share the home, while Keith David excels as an extraordinarily wise cat.
Bruno Coulais' Elfmanesque score is a perfect complement to the film's action, and even They Might Be Giants contributes to the film's soundtrack.
While you will undoubtedly appreciate "Coraline" in 2D, it was created in and is most appropriately viewed in its intended 3-D. It should be noted, however, that 3-D most assuredly enhances the film's visual effects and it is highly likely that young children will find aspects of the Other Mother's World a bit disturbing.
It is unusual to find a gem such as "Coraline" in the cinematic wasteland of Hollywood's winter releases. It is difficult to imagine that a finer animated feature will be released this year, and one can only hope that "Coraline" will be remembered come awards season.
With images and words both sublime and surreal, "Coraline" is easily the highlight of early 2009 and will haunt your memory long after you've left the theatre.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic