Animator pulls out all the stops for stop-motion fairy tale
Directed by Henry Selick
Cast: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman, Keith David
Animator Henry Selick doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his work on The Nightmare Before Christmas. Tim Burton has his name stamped all over that Halloweeny classic, but it was Selick who directed the film and supervised its distinctive stop-motion animation. Selick also helmed the stylish 2001 adaptation of James and the Giant Peach. (For a glimpse of Selick’s early genius, hunt down his award-winning 1991 short “Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions.”) Perhaps now Selick will get a little credit where credit is due thanks to his painstaking work writing and directing the dark-yet-juvenile fantasy flick Coraline.
The film is based on the Hugo award-winning young adult novel by noted comic book author Neil Gaiman. As adaptations go, this is a fortuitous one. Gaiman’s slim novel means virtually nothing needs to be cut. Selick actually has the luxury of expanding on Gaiman’s little world, creating something that is--in many ways-- fuller and more expansive than its source material.
We are introduced to our title character, a cobalt-haired 12-year-old voiced by the ubiquitous (but still excellent) Dakota Fanning, as she is moved into a rickety old rooming house by her dull parents (Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman). How dull are mom and dad? They write copy for seed catalogues.
Left to her own devices, Coraline explores the ins and outs of her new home. Upstairs, she finds an excitable, possibly delusional Russian (Ian McShane, “Deadwood”) allegedly training a troupe of mice to perform circus acts. Downstairs, she meets a pair of well-aged Burlesque dancers (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French of “Absolutely Fabulous” fame) living off their past glories. She also crosses paths with Wybie, a shy boy her own age. But he seems far too dorky to actually befriend. (Wybie is one of the major--and perfectly welcome--additions to the book. Without a narrator to voice her thoughts, Coraline needs someone to talk to.)
Like a long line of unhappy preteen gals before her (Alice in Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Wendy in Peter Pan, Lucy in The Chronicles of Narnia, that poor little Spanish girl in Pan’s Labyrinth), Coraline soon stumbles across an alternate world of wonders--this one hidden behind a secret door in her library. Not only does this other dimension look almost exactly like her own, it’s inhabited by near-perfect doppelgängers of the people in her life. The difference is that this other universe caters to Coraline’s every desire. The boring rooming house is filled with excitement and fun, the weedy garden is in beautiful bloom and Coraline’s “Other Mother” is perfectly willing to cook whatever Coraline wants for dinner.
Although Coraline finds herself increasingly seduced by this seemingly perfect place, she has her doubts. Certain things about this world seem darker and creepier than the real one. For starters, everyone here has had their eyes scooped out and replaced with shiny black buttons. And that Other Mother is a little too intent on keeping Coraline from returning to her real home. Oh, and there’s that talking cat who keeps warning her she’s in dire trouble. ... And did I mention the buttons?
Obviously, the place where Coraline excels is in the visual department. Selick manufactures some real marvels here, expanding on Gaiman’s phantasmagorical universe. In the book, for example, the crazy Russian is training mice for a small band. Here, he’s got a full-on circus, which we see in all its cotton-candied glory. In the book, the two old women downstairs are Shakespearean actresses. Here, they’re Burlesque performers who get to act out a fantastical, mildly bawdy stage show. (Catch the film at a theater with digital projection and you’ll be able to see these spectacles in immersive 3-D--a definite, triple-A, five-star recommendation for a film that relies on its visuals as much as this one.)
Story-wise, this grim fairy tale is a simple one. Coraline encounters various magical wonders. Good eventually wins out over evil. And the moral about getting what you wish for is clear and to the point. Gaiman obviously has a taste for this sort of thing. (If you’ve seen Dave McKean’s adaptation of Gaiman’s MirrorMask, you’ve seen largely the same Alice in Wonderland-esque plotline.) Familiarity, however, isn’t a strike against the film. These are the conventions that work, and Gaiman and Selick know how to work them like experts. The details are what count here, and Coraline provides plenty of delightful, delirious, devilish details.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t pull any of the book’s punches. Eerie images and ghoulish shocks abound, which should make fans of The Nightmare Before Christmas (and Hot Topic retailers) very happy. It’s perfectly acceptable for daydreamers of all ages, but Selick and Gaiman’s combined taste for the grim (ghostly children, monstrous parental figures) means this one’s probably too intense for young ones.