The ubiquity of computer generated
imagery and digital animation has rendered practical effects and stop-motion
animation increasingly obsolete. Sadly, the special effects days
of Ray Harryhausen are long-gone, and while films like Up and
The Incredibles are immaculately made and memorable, there is something
about the tactile personal craftsmanship - not to mention the painstaking
expense of blood, sweat and tears - that makes stop-motion uniquely
appealing and satisfying. This technique, nearly as old as the
motion picture itself, brings magical life to what are essentially high-tech
toys - and in doing so, taps into one of the most deep-seated imaginative
notions of childhood: making our toys move.
"Moving toys" might sound
mercilessly reductive, but it's not meant to be. Every child
has toys that they cherish, that they feel emotionally close to in some
measure, and when they play with those toys, they see them walk and
hear them talk. Stop-motion animation taps into that memory of
creative development on a sub-conscious level, and in the case of
Coraline, does so while telling a complex story utilizing all the
cinematic tools of a live-action film.
Henry Selick's adaptation
of Neil Gaiman's novella is inspired, many-layered, and vastly entertaining.
The source material seems to have been made for stop-motion, and in
fact, the bonus materials inform us that Selick began working on the
film before the book was published.
Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota
Fanning) moves into an isolated apartment house with her parents (Teri
Hatcher and John Hodgman), gardening writers who don't garden.
Coraline is a lonely kid, whose parents neglect her, at least while
they are hard at work writing a new gardening catalog. Desperate
for stimulation, Coraline explores her new home and discovers a tiny
door that opens onto a secret passageway. At the other end is...her
apartment. But not quite. Living there are strange button-eyed
doppelgangers of her parents. These Other Parents shower Coraline
with attention, food, and goodies. But this escape route from
her daily life turns out to be much more dangerous than she imagined;
her Other Mother is actually a beldam, a woman intent upon consuming
the souls of the children unfortunate enough to fall into her trap.
Coraline finds herself struggling to escape this alternate reality and,
ultimately, fighting the beldam for the lives of her true parents.
One of the central themes of
Coraline has to do with the imagination; in fact, the film's tagline
is, "Be careful what you wish for." Coraline is not a brat;
at no point does she say anything like, "I wish I had different parents."
But her desire for something more is clear. The passageway offers
her an opportunity in that direction. It's odd, but also appropriate,
that a film so bursting with imagination should warn of the dangers
inherent in an imagination run wild. Too often are we encouraged,
in the course of movie-watching, to indulge in the escape of a film
that promises emotionally satisfying resolutions once we've become
invested in the film's characters. But here's a rare thing:
a film whose protagonist seeks an escape, too, but who is shocked by
the consequences of diving deep into a deceptively fantastic reality.
Through the predicament of the heroine, Coraline asks us questions
about our very involvement in watching films and other forms of escapist
activity (sports, work, etc.). To what extent do we immerse ourselves
and how difficult is it for us to extract ourselves once we do so?
Coraline is a beautiful
and creepy visual experience. The overall design and look of the
film is its own - not a style associated, for example, with Tim Burton
(as some might expect, since Selick directed The Nightmare Before
Christmas), but belonging solely to the world of Coraline.
The colors, tiny costumes and props, and backgrounds are all of a piece,
portraying a strong shared vision carried out with the utmost care and
precision. The character design is memorably differentiated, from
Coraline's flat-topped head, to the spindly acrobatics of Mr. Bobinsky.
The Other World's button-eyed characters provide an unsettling jolt
every time they appear. The Other Mother's evil incarnation
looks like she came straight from a Camille Rose Garcia painting -
an interesting connection, given Garcia's abiding interest in the
dangers of escapism.
Even without a strong story,
it would have been a noteworthy film. But Selick's adaptation
retains the power and disturbing tones of Gaiman's source novella,
while beefing up the narrative a bit for the feature-length nature of
the project. While technically and visually amazing, Coraline
is a rounded, fleshed-out film, marked by a focus on the aforementioned
themes, and driven by real, full-bodied characters.
This review is of the 2-Disc Collector's Edition. The discs
are housed in a standard single-width keepcase, with a card slipcover.
Inside the keepcase are four sets of 3D glasses wrapped in cellophane.
The first disc is a flipper, and contains two versions of the film,
one in 2D and one in 3D. Both transfers are anamorphically enhanced
1.78:1 images. I regret missing the 3D version in theaters, because
Coraline was shot in true stereoscopic 3D. Unfortunately,
the 3D effect did not work for me on DVD. I don't know whether
the problem was my eyesight, the glasses provided, my television, or
the transfer - but I tried watching the 3D version for fifteen minutes
and all I got was a headache. The colors were extremely muddy,
images somewhat blurred, and 3D effects minimal. I applaud Universal
for the effort, but it didn't work for me. I hope other viewers
have better luck with this. In fact, I'd like to hear from readers
about their experience with the 3D option.
The 2D option, however, is
a great success. The color palette is in full bloom here, with
rich detail and solid blacks. There were a few moments where I
caught moiré effects and other minimal artifacts, but generally this
is a lovely transfer that diligently recreates the art of the animators.
There are three Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes: in English, French, and
Spanish, each with its own set of subtitles. The English track
doesn't make enormous use of surround effects, but is nonetheless
very clear, with a broad, immersive soundstage. Music, effects,
and dialogue are balanced extremely well, with none being lost beneath
the other. The striking musical score by Bruno Coulais mixes an
eclectic orchestral sound with choral vocals sung in a nonsense language,
and is worth a listen on its own.
A fair but not overwhelming
group of extras has been assembled by Universal. On disc one is
a commentary track featuring Henry Selick and Bruno Coulais.
However, Selick speaks for the film's entirety, with Coulais relegated
only to the end credits. Nonetheless, it's a good track, with
Selick speaking almost nonstop, detailing every aspect of the film's
On the bonus disc, we have
an oddly-edited selection of deleted scenes with introductions
by Selick (8.50). There is also The Making of Coraline
(35:56), a solid behind-the-scenes featurette that illustrates the
enormous effort of a very large crew in getting Coraline to the
screen. Finally, Voicing the Characters (10:46) shows how
the voice actors were directed, and how their performances informed
the animation process. Finally, a digital copy of the film
is included for both PC and Mac users.
Coraline is a richly
realized film, dense with visual detail and unusually strong characters
and themes. Despite my difficulty with the 3D option on this DVD,
the technical presentation is very good, and the extras are enlightening
even if they are few. I will keep my fingers crossed that Coraline's
success encourages other filmmakers to experiment with stop-motion.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.