[3 February 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The nostalgic effect of stop motion animation is potent. Indeed, the moment a member of an earlier generation sees the static, superlative work of such single frame artistry, visions of Ray Harryhausen, George Pal and his Puppetoons, and the dream factory forged by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass instantly come to mind. It’s all Mad Monster Parties and the adventures of Tubby the Tuba. As the format flourished during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the love for all things Clokey (Gumby), O’Brien (King Kong), and Danforth (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth) grew. In the ‘80s, Will Vinton carried the magic mantle, while the ‘90s saw Nick Park and his Wallace and Gromit gain international approval.
Somewhat lost among the mythic mix is creative genius Henry Selick. Sidelined by his association with Tim Burton, a lame live action misstep (Monkeybone), and an under-appreciated if terrific take on Roald Dahl, he’s now back - and he’s brought English icon Neil Gaiman along for the ride. Together, they tap into areas heretofore unheard of for a family film, bringing both the singular and the sinister to the mix. The result is Coraline, a quirky dark fantasy which while grounded in a kind of every kid reality, transcends the mundane to become something quite special indeed.
When her family moves to rainy, gloomy Oregon, Coraline Jones finds herself lost in a new and wholly unfamiliar apartment house. Her upstairs neighbor is an eccentric Eastern European named Mr. Bobinsky. He once ran a famous mouse circus. Now, he seems insane. Downstairs live the equally odd actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible. The former burlesque style glamour queens are obsessed with their slobbering terriers and their inflated figures. And then there’s Wybie, the grandson of the woman who owns the building. He’s a jabbering pain in Coraline’s already sour demeanor.
One day, our heroine discovers a door to another dimension, a place where her gardening book author parents are attentive and thoughtful, where Mr. Bobinsky is a regal ringmaster, and the team of Spink and Forcible offer their own naughty nightly floorshow. But something is not quite right with this fanciful place. All the people have big black buttons sewn into their faces - in place of their eyes - and in order to stay, Coraline must agree to do the same. Little does she know that dark forces are plotting to keep her prisoner in the other realm forever!
In a genre packed with derivative visuals and too hip for homeroom pop culture jibes, Coraline is a welcome return to pure animation splendor. It’s gorgeous to look at, inspiring to experience, and satisfying in ways few modern motion pictures - no matter the proposed demographic - ever strive to achieve. In the hands of Selick, the real mastermind behind A Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, we witness the kind of imagination and invention that only Pixar can provide - and with none of that newfangled technological twaddle to get in the way. This is untainted artistry, plain and simple, skill sets unseen in today’s joke a minute cinema-nipulation.
Granted, Selick does take liberties with Gaiman’s prize winning novella, reconfiguring the setting to a dreary Pacific Northeast and creating his own character outside the book. As a result, Coraline feels like a real motion picture rarity - a true collaboration between author and interpreter. Make no mistake, this director still admires and abides by the tome’s “horror’ overtones, never lightening up the material to make it more mainstream. Instead, Coraline is a film you have to fall into fully, an outrageous statement of childhood fear fashioned out of wish fulfillment, candy floss, and a whole lot of sharp, pointy things.
Selick excels within this brooding big picture, and he certainly brings the spectacle here (enhanced, naturally, by the application of excellent 3D effects). He pays homage to Pal and the Puppetoons with an amazing mouse marching band that has to be seen to be believed. The level of precision and overall scope is jaw dropping. Similarly, Madams Spink and Forcible give a floorshow that will sail right over the heads of prepubescent audiences, but definitely satisfy a depressed drag along dad or two. Selick sets much of the film outside the perplexing pink apartment house, utilizing the surreal garden set-up and the surrounding forest to find new avenues of expression. And there’s no denying the man’s eye for set and character design. The figurines employed here and the backgrounds they exist in are fully realized and ridiculously alive.
Of course, character is very important to this film’s success, and Coraline doesn’t skimp on personality. Thanks the wonderful work by the voice actors (Dakota Fanning, Terri Hatcher, Ian McShane, Dawn French, and Jennifer Saunders all acquit themselves more than admirably here) and the way in which these entities are employed, we experience untold amounts of depth. Some might see this film as too edgy or cold, calculated without adding the necessary nuances of emotion or identification. Frankly, it’s a foolhardy argument. Coraline is involving, entrancing, heartfelt…and in the end, rather hopeful. We want this young girl to be happy, and fear she will take up with the Other World residents because they promise things that are superficial and instantly gratifying. If there’s a singular theme here, it’s the tagline currently being used for the film’s promotion - “be careful what you wish for”. Such unearned satisfaction can only lead to pain and disappointment.
In combination with the qualities Selick typically brings to the party - passion for stop motion, an attention to detail, a true love of the overall artform - Coraline can’t help but be charming. It’s like a trip back in time, to the moment when you first realized that a giant ape could actually climb to the top of the Empire State Building, or a creature from Greek mythology could ‘come alive’ scare you to your core. It’s a flawless illustration of why pen and ink cartooning (and its modern computer-based companion) just can’t compete with the painstaking approach of this old school medium. Perhaps audiences will finally understand and appreciate what Selick and his cohorts have been championing for decades. This kind of animation is truly amazing, and Coraline is a perfect example of its remarkable, resplendent wonders.