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Dustin Putman

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Coraline  (2009)
3 Stars
Directed by Henry Selick.
Voice Cast: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David, Ian McShane, Robert Bailey Jr.
2009 – 101 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for thematic elements, scary images, some language and suggestive humor).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 6, 2009.
A relatively faithful adaptation of Neil Gaiman's imaginative children's horror story, the stop-motion animated "Coraline" has been in some stage of production for the better part of a decade. The format, previously used in 1993's "A Nightmare Before Christmas" (like this film, directed by Henry Selick) and 2005's "Corpse Bride," involves the painstaking process of creating an entire world with miniature models, and shooting it a single frame at a time. Far more complex than computer-generated animation, stop-motion work stands out as a very special, very personal, and very intimate craft that deserves to be celebrated when tackled. Even when the screenplay (also by Selick) diverges from the source material in misguided ways, the landscape that "Coraline" is set within (further aided theatrically by stunning, for once non-gimmicky stereoscopic 3-D) is immersive, at once immediately familiar and strangely alien to the planet we live on. Characters move in a somewhat jerky fashion that, when one thinks about it, is actually more accurate than the smooth, fluid motion portrayed in CG animation. Above all that, the story is fraught with morals, danger, frights, and a quirkily original story that should speak to audiences of any age.

11-year-old Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) has just moved from her old home in Michigan to her new one—a three-storey duplex called the Pink Palace—in rainy, mountainous Oregon. With her mom (Teri Hatcher) and dad (John Hodgman) paying her little attention as they try to finish a garden catalogue for work, Coraline is lonely, grumpy and bored. With the wet weather outside keeping her indoors, she decides to explore the nooks and crannies of the house. Stumbling upon a portal hidden behind a small doorway, Coraline's curiosity gets the best of her.

What she finds on the other side is a near replica of her own world, only more joyous, colorful and filled with magic. The stray cat (Keith David) suddenly speaks. The obnoxious, talkative neighbor boy Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.) acts as her companion but has been rendered mute. The dumpy downstairs neighbors, ex-actresses Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French), are suddenly slim and young, putting on acrobatic performances for sold-out crowds of Scottie dogs and one very excitable Coraline. Meanwhile, upstairs neighbor Mr. Bobinski (Ian McShane) hosts circus performances delivered by his pet mice. The garden out back is gorgeous, and the food is delicious. Coraline would love this new version of home if it were not for one very big catch: her Other Mother and Other Father are not her real parents, their eyes made of buttons and their cheerful personas hiding grotesque, murderous monsters. They want to stitch buttons over Coraline's eyes, too, and make her their permanent daughter. Suddenly, Coraline's old life begins to sound awfully desirable in comparison.

An unmistakable cautionary tale about the importance of appreciating what you have in life, "Coraline" is a dark yet vibrant fantasy feature with immaculate visual detail and artful style. The youngest of children will be terrified—it's been said that grown-ups might be even more so—but pretty much every viewer won't be able to take his or her eyes off the screen. Instead of pandering to kids with one-liners, comic relief and bathroom humor, writer-director Henry Selick stays serious and relies on the storytelling strength of Neil Gaiman's novel to carry the day—mixed with a few of his own added flourishes. Even when Coraline has yet to suspect foul intent from this new universe she has found, Selick subtly hints through facial expressions, elongated beats in the editing, and loopy details outside the norm that things are not quite right. By the time the Other Mother has begun to morph into a large, hulking, skeletal figure the more her plans are threatened by a defiant Coraline, the bleaker the film gets and the more threateningly spare the imagery becomes.

Coraline, delightfully voiced by Dakota Fanning (2009's "Push"), is a heroine who takes a while to warm to the viewer. It is not that she isn't likable, but that she is so honest a rendering of an unhappy pre-teen who has yet to find her place in the world. She's not cute for the sake of being cute, but she is resourceful, strong-willed, and ultimately empathetic. Face to face with unimaginable horrors—not only the predatory Other Mother and Other Father, but also three trapped ghost children who have fallen victim to them and the disappearance of her real-life parents—Coraline experiences an epiphany about how good she has had it and how selfish she was to not acknowledge the gifts she has been given in her childhood. Voicing every incarnation of Coraline's mother, Teri Hatcher (TV's "Desperate Housewives") flexes her vocal chords as she creates three distinct personalities. Helping the transformation is the design of the Other Mother, who deteriorates throughout from a button-eyed nice woman into a ghastly spider lady who will stop at nothing to snatch Coraline away for good.

As the climax plays out, it becomes apparent that not all of the changes and revisions to Neil Gaiman's work were for the best. A brand-new character, Wybie, is meant to be someone whom Coraline can confide in during her journey, but his existence lessens the sense of isolation Coraline should be experiencing. Besides, the cat serves the exact same purpose, and more effectively. That Wybie plays a part in Coraline's fight at the end takes away from a victory that should be hers and hers alone. Is Selick suggesting that a female child isn't capable of fighting her own battles? Even if this wasn't his intention, that is how it comes off. Additionally, a closing scene between Coraline and the entrapped ghost children is inferior to Gaiman's vision, and the earned sentiment between Coraline and her parents, harried but loving, feels oddly rushed and ultimately detached. The emotional catharsis we expect does not come, and as a result the viewer is left a little chilly.

Nitpicks and third-act criticisms aside, "Coraline" is a foreboding, whimsical, altogether spectacularly mounted fable. Giving Pixar a run for its money, Henry Selick has helmed what is sure to become a generations-passed cinematic treasure trove for families to savor and enjoy. From the misty exteriors, to the increasingly oddball interior design of the Other House (beetles as chocolates and giant cockroaches as furniture), to the circular passageway between worlds that starts off attractively kaleidoscopic and concludes as a cobwebbed, nightmarish sort of birth canal, each shot pops to potent, mesmerizing life. At the center, never to be misplaced, is the title character of Coraline. Her path to maturation and coming of age is depicted as a hell more literal than most, but the destination is the same. By the end, she is wiser, nicer, and has learned more than a couple of lessons along the way. Thankfully, so have her parents.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman