Sweet Coraline

One important rule of making it in Hollywood is to always be working on your next picture by the time your last one opens, and to have the one after that all nailed down. That way, if the one at the box office flops, you have two more chances before your career is finished.

This is probably impossible if you’re doing stop-motion animation. And so it came to pass that the director of Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach went eight years between movie releases: the disastrous Monkeybone and the reasonably successful Coraline.

I had held off going to see this movie, as it The Boy wasn’t really in the target audience–too old–and neither was The Flower–if not too young, exactly, then not particularly inclined to the creepy. But it has hung on and made an unexpected appearance at our local art house this week, when all the Oscar dross finally got pushed out. (Yay!)

The Flower seemed pretty confident that, as this was a fairy tale (my description), that they would all live happily ever after, and therefore it would be okay for her to see. But why o why, she lamented, didn’t they just tell you the ending beforehand? Then you’d know if you wanted to go see it!

This led to a less surreal discussion than the one I posted here (which occurred after the movie) between her and the boy about whether the ending was more important than how you get there.

So, about the movie: This is, indeed, a fairy tale about a young girl who moves from the big city into a sub-divided house out in the boondocks with her preoccupied parents. In the house, she discovers a tiny door with only a brick wall behind it. But if her parents aren’t around (asleep, away), the wall becomes a passage. And on the other side of the passage is a mirror image of her world, only this world fulfills her dreams of the perfect life.

Her other parents are doting and entertaining, her neighbors aren’t crazy old coots but magically talented, the garden is a living world of lights, and even her room is fantastically enchanted.

The only apparent thing that’s “off” is that all the people in this mirror world have buttons for eyes. (This, of course, is just a warning sign of how off the whole thing is.)

Creepy, eh? Now, fairy tales are creepy and horrific, in general. This isn’t much different, thematically, than Hansel and Gretel and the gingerbread house, or Celtic stories of “little people”, who were always doing horrible things. But if you’re going to take a kid to see this, make sure they’re not freaked out by eye stuff. (The other really disturbing part of the movie, that of the fat old women running around in skimpy clothing, was in the “well, there’s something you don’t see every day” category. The Flower recognized the reference to Boticelli immediately.)

The Flower is primarily disturbed by unhappy endings, so no issue with the eyes for her, though when the illusion of the other world started to come apart, my arm was grabbed and stayed grabbed for quite some time.

And come apart it does as the mystery of the “other mother” unfolds.

Wonderful voice work by Teri Hatcher (who shall forever be Lois Lane to me) and Keith David (as a savvy cat nemesis to the “other mother”), as well as Dakota Fanning as Coraline, John Hodgman as Father, and the comedy team of French and Saunders as the crazy old ladies next door. Ian McShane, late of Kung Fu Panda, plays an old Russian guy training mice in his apartment.

Ultimately, this is a satisfying movie, with solid Fairy Tale logic. Everything hangs together. I would swear I’ve read the tale before in another form; certainly the concept of a fairy world where illusions make very mundane or even nasty things seem marvelous is not new. But I can’t remember any particular fairy tale that goes that way. (Fritz Leiber wrote a Fafhrd/Grey Mouser story called Bazaar of the Bizarre in that vein, and the theme of great-illusion-masking-horrible-truth was used in the 2000 version of Bedazzled.)

And Selick’s work is good here. He demonstrates (again) that much of the visual artistry of Nightmare Before Christmas was his, if you didn’t pick that up from James and the Giant Peach and Monkeybone. (His pallette is less ruthlessly grey/white/red than Burton’s.) Since it was meant to exploit 3D–my brain doesn’t do 3D so we saw it regular-flat-style–it has more than a few moments that are conspiculously sticky-out-of-the-screen-y, but it’s not horrible in that regard.

And the stop-motion is very fine, indeed. It’s even more impressive to think that, in this day-and-age when computers can simulate this style of animation (or even more, that computers fulfill the needs stop-motion animation was originally meant to address), that there are teams of people out there moving little dolls around a millimeter at a time. And you get to marvel at the broken mirrors, the running water, and all the other little things that seem impossible with just stop-motion. (There are some parts that were surely computer animated, but not that many!)

The only caveat I have is that the movie is probably over-rated. It’s very good, but not a mind-blowing revelation. I think a lot of the hype comes from the fact that Neil Gaiman–a comic book luminary along the lines of Alan Moore or Frank Miller–wrote the story on which this was based.

It’s a fine story. And a fine movie. Part of the reason for both, though, is that it doesn’t have grand pretensions. It’s a nice, moral fairy tale. Enjoy it for being that.

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