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A horror film for kids? Henry Selick's marvelous Coraline is more of a children's fantasy with teeth than an outright horror picture, but critics last winter fell all over themselves to warn parents that its surreal content might disturb small children. (Not that anyone worries about kids routinely watching violence or sadism these days.) What's more likely is that the growing popularity of animated features "for the whole family" leads filmgoers to assume that anything not live action and rated "R" is suitable for all ages. Pitched at a far more sophisticated level than computer cartoons about zoo animals, Coraline is a kind of updated Frank L. Baum - Lewis Carroll parallel world story, with just enough psychological complexity to encourage discussion. Filmed in Henry Selick's intricate stop-motion animation method and in the optically perfect modern digital 3D, Coraline is a terrific picture that will surely grow in stature.
Back in 1985, Walter Murch's rather dark version of Return to Oz envisioned both Kansas and Oz as scary places unsuitable for tiny tots. Parents reacted as if Disneyland had updated the "It's a Small World" ride with Jack the Ripper and buckets of blood. To its eternal credit, Coraline doesn't worry about such distinctions -- it isn't trying to compete with other fare at the multiplex.
The stop-motion animated Coraline is based on a book by Neil Gaiman. Little Coraline (voice: Dakota Fanning) moves with her family to an old house in the country. Her mother and father ((voices: Teri Hatcher & John Hodgman) must concentrate on finishing a book about gardening, and she feels neglected. Weird neighbors Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (voices: Jennifer Saunders & Dawn French) and Mr. Bobinsky ((voice: Ian McShane) are even less fun than Wybie Lovat (voice: Robert Bailey Jr.), the son of the landlord. Wybie tries to scare Coraline; she accuses him of stalking her.
The situation changes completely when Coraline discovers a sealed-up access door that leads to a parallel dimension, a mirror world more pleasant than her own life in every respect -- except that everyone there has buttons instead of eyes. Her "Other Mother" in the house beyond the door serves sweets and gourmet meals, while her Other Father writes music and cultivates a magic garden. Mr. Bobinsky's mouse circus is amazing, and the ex-showgirls Spink and Forcible put on a similarly miraculous (and racy) stage extravaganza. Even Wybie is "improved" -- he doesn't talk. But Coraline soon becomes convinced that all is not right in the "other" world. The scrawny black cat (voice: Keith David) can talk in this strange domain, and warns Caroline that all she sees is a trap. Her Other Mother insists that it's time to become a permanent member of the "improved" family -- by having her eyes removed and buttons sewn in their place. Like Wybie, Coraline's Other Father appears to be a submissive, frightened slave.
A good creepy thriller, Coraline could be described as "Nancy Drew versus the Invasion of the Body Snatchers". Coraline begins as a plucky and assertive girl's role model but reveals herself as mildly selfish and intolerant as any normal kid. Dissatisfied with her parents' lack of attention and unappreciative of the fact that they are in an economic bind, Coraline takes out her frustration on Wybie, calling him "Why-were-you-born". The enhanced world down the strange tunnel beyond the small door is at first a candy coated wonderland, until Coraline discovers that it's a Ubik- like illusion generated by the mind of a grasping, evil creature. 1 The Body Snatchers aspect become evident when the Other Mother's attempt to buy Coraline's love is revealed to be an entirely selfish ploy: her M.O. is to steal the eyes of children so she can feed off their souls. "Dead" buttons and cheery, fake attitudes replace living eyes... the nightmare imagery is quite vivid.
The wonderful aspects of the Other World -- the entertaining shows, the super-wonderful father -- are revealed to be just more Coraline-bait. The demonic creature has insectoid furniture and proves to be herself rather insect-like. Note that the other mother's posterior suggests the abdomen of a wasp. Her disembodied metallic hand crawls like the spider monster of the 1982 The Thing. Some criticized the creature for looking too much like Disney's Cruella De Ville when it drops its "good mom" disguise. When relieved of its eyes, the creature suddenly resembles the jut-jawed maternal monster from Alien.
Luckily, Coraline proves to be a girl of grit and fiber. She rises to the challenge of solving the mystery, rescuing some lost souls and her own parents as well. Wybie (who reminds a bit of Christian Slater in Heathers) is helpful but Coraline's real aide-de-camp turns out to be the black cat, a scrapper who shows rats no mercy. Coraline doesn't believe in cutesy furry animals -- our heroine approves when the lethal cat nails a scurvy demonic rat.
Coraline is even more amazing-looking than I thought it would be. I'm kicking myself for not seeing it theatrically in digital 3D. The razor-sharp miniature world created entirely on stop-motion tabletops uses CGI only for a few grace note effects here and there. The quality of the animation is astounding, with each character given a distinct set of gestures. One scene marshals a multitude of Scottish terriers. Realistic-looking food is served at the table. Clothing and hair move and sway with gravity. Juggling dozens of sets and utilizing precise design contrasts to make its thematic points, Coraline has a much different feel than the whimsical stop-motion films of Tim Burton. It is a filmic original and total success.
Universal's Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy release of Coraline allows one to see the movie in four different ways. A second bonus disc contains the DVD version plus Digital versions downloadable both to Mac or a PC. The Blu-ray disc contains the feature in full HD resolution in both flat and 3D versions. Four pairs of 3D glasses are provided.
The flat encoding is wonderful, with vibrant colors. "Filmed" with digital still cameras, the images are incredibly sharp and detailed, allowing one to ponder the superior craftsmanship of the puppets and miniature props. I don't know if it's a subjective anomaly (Savant's vision is not perfect), but I found the 3D version to be much less colorful, as if the red-green anaglyphic (I believe that's the process being used) filters were muting the hues. Some of the 3D effects were quite good and other shots just didn't seem to come together, as often seemed to happen with older anaglyphic 3D pictures. When we watched the flat version on a second pass the movie looked far better. Just the same, I'm hoping that positive consumer response will encourage studios to work out a viable home video 3D delivery system.
Director Selick and composer Bruno Coulais contribute a lively commentary discussing many aspects of what is an amazing production. A series of making-of featurettes are as eye opening as the feature itself. We can hardly believe that this kind of artisanship still exists, as we see literally hundreds of beautifully constructed miniatures, including partial character heads used to animate facial expressions. Little hands the size of a finger are fully articulated for animation. Time-lapse shots of animators at work show the artists moving as many as twenty items on screen for each frame of film ... even with a video assist to keep track, the finished footage trickles in only a few seconds at a time. Vignettes address the vocal sessions, and the animation of things like ground fog. A piece addressing the "creepy" content includes input from the author, Neil Gaiman.
A selection of deleted material consists mostly of brief scene extensions, none of which are missed. Some of the incomplete shots reveal the production detail of the split-faced puppets. As the bottom half of each character's face is interchangeable, a crack is sometimes visible. These cracks were later digitally erased.
Pixar-style digital animation rules the roost today, but we hope there always will be room for stop-motion marvels like Coraline. I'm certain that Henry Selick's deserving picture will be a huge hit on home video.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Coraline Blu-ray rates:
1. In Philip K. Dick's Ubik, a malicious boy possessed of a super-brain uses mental energy to create a hologram-like false world to fool the hero. If the hero moves in an unexpected direction faster than the boy can "think-create", reality runs out ... like a character wandering into the margin of a mural painted only so far in any direction. In Coraline, the evil creature uses magic to likewise fabricate an entire false mirror world. When Coraline and the cat prove that the fantastic garden is a fake, it disintegrates. The demon no longer bothers to maintain the illusion.
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