2009, PG, 100 min. Directed by Henry Selick. Voices by Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Ian McShane, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey Jr., Keith David.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 6, 2009
Just as 3-D is heralded as the newest old trick in the cinema showman’s grab bag, along comes Coraline – the first animated stop-motion feature to be created in 3-D – to remind us that there can be more than mere gimmickry in the souped-up imagery. It’s not so much that Coraline’s 3-D effects are vividly realistic or eye-catching, but instead, they appear integral to the visual design and enhance rather than overwhelm the images. Writer-director Selick, with his past experience helming James and the Giant Peach and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, again demonstrates his unparalleled mastery of the phantasmagoric image. Selick adapted Coraline for stop-motion screen puppets from versatile author Neil Gaiman’s prize-winning young-adult novel. The storyline is a classic “grass is always greener” fable that perfectly reflects a child’s provenance of whims and fears. Through a hidden door in a wall of the Pink Palace, her new home, young Coraline (voiced by Fanning) escapes into an alternate universe that looks almost exactly like her real one except that she’s met there by her “other mother and father,” who cook and write music and dote on her every desire, unlike her real parents (both parental units voiced by Hatcher and Hodgman), who are too absorbed in their own work to lavish much attention on their daughter and new home. Coraline returns frequently to the enchanting world of her other mother and father, loving everything about this inexplicable place except for the black buttons that are sewn in place of where their eyes ought to be. “Soon, you’ll see things our way,” says her other mother, a promise that does not exactly comfort Coraline. Characters from the Pink Palace also show up in Coraline’s alternate universe and perform great vaudevillian acts: Miss Forcible (French) and Miss Spink (Saunders), the actresses from downstairs, and the Russian circus performer Mr. Bobinsky (McShane) and his dancing mice. Selick makes a questionable decision to add a character named Wybie (Bailey Jr.) to the story. He’s a strange boy but potential playmate for Coraline. It makes little sense to insert such a character since Coraline’s escape to the alternate world is primarily driven by her loneliness. When Wybie again shows up at the story’s climax, just as Coraline discovers she must become her own heroine and extricate herself (and the ghosts of a few other lost children whom she discovers) from this ersatz reality, it gives the appearance that he may have been invented solely to provide the film with some “boy content” – a hero to assist the capable damselette in distress. Perhaps fewer secondary characters would have helped the movie’s overall flow. Particularly at the end, when the ghosts of missing children enter the picture, Coraline may prove unsuitably macabre for the youngest viewers. Yet your children and you are unlikely to see a film anytime soon that has more of a handmade feel – a value unto itself. Coraline (complemented beautifully by French composer Bruno Coulais' score) stays remarkably true to a kid's-eye perspective and dormant fears: The only buttoned-down eyeballs you see will remain on the screen. (See "The Slow Magic of Stop-Motion," Feb. 6, for an interview with Henry Selick.)