Combustible Celluloid Review - Coraline (2009), Henry Selick, based on a book by Neil Gaiman, Henry Selick, Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey Jr., Ian McShane (voices)
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With: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey Jr., Ian McShane (voices)
Written by: Henry Selick, based on a book by Neil Gaiman
Directed by: Henry Selick
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, scary images, some language and suggestive humor
Running Time: 101
Date: 02/05/2009

Coraline (2009)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Panic Buttons

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The word "dark" is very often tossed around to describe movies these days, probably even more than words like "masterpiece." Everyone seems to think they want "dark," but the films that actually make money and get rewards are usually anything but. (The Dark Knight being the notable and obvious exception.) Certainly children's films tend to shy away from "dark," even if they pretend to embrace it. That makes Henry Selick's new film Coraline -- based on a book by Neil Gaiman -- a real rarity; it's a film that has more in common with grim (and Grimm) children's stories of old than with anything produced today.

Coraline's family has just moved to a new house, and Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is bored. She has left her good friends behind, and her prospects for new friends are dim. Living upstairs is Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), a circus performer who trains mice. Downstairs we have the aged theater stars Miss Forcible (voiced by Dawn French) and Miss Spink (voiced by Jennifer Saunders), who serve dishes of decades-old toffee. A nearby neighbor kid, Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), is too weird and annoying. And Coraline's mother (voiced by Teri Hatcher) and father (voiced by John Hodgman) are busy writing about plants, even though they hate to get their hands dirty actually working in the garden.

Coraline pokes around the new house, becoming more bored by the second, until she discovers a little door behind the wallpaper in the living room. At first, the door leads only to a bricked-up wall, but at night she discovers that it has magically opened. The door brings her to a near-exact duplicate of her house, including replicas of all the various characters. Everything seems to be better; the food is better, the garden is more gorgeous and everything is much nicer and more fun. The main difference is that everyone has buttons for eyes! Coraline's visits grow more and more sinister until it becomes clear that she is being coaxed into to staying, and to replace her own eyes with buttons.

Of course, there's more than that. But the main section of the film deals directly with some very deep, dark childhood fears, such as the idea of impostor parents; as a child, I used to have nightmares about this. It's a classic fear of abandonment, of being left alone. Even the Wybie character, who does not appear in the novel, represents this with his odd name (short for "why born," or "why were you born?"). There's a section of the film in which Coraline's world literally vanishes -- leaving nothing but white emptiness -- that's one of the most truly frightening images I've seen in a so-called "family" film. The buttons for eyes are also a primal fear, the loss of one's eyes, but also the buttons, with their accompanying images of needles and being "fastened" or permanently "closed." (One could even go much deeper, to Freud territory.) Many children's films center around orphans or simply disregard the idea of parents altogether, but Coraline directly faces a child's conundrum; she wants to be free of her parents, but also needs them for survival and comfort.

This is Selick's fourth feature film. I like The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996) and felt that Monkeybone (2001) was a good idea gone wrong, but Coraline is the first time he has touched greatness. Like some of his earlier work, Coraline is presented in ground-breaking, hand-crafted stop-motion animation (with only a few assists from computers), but it's also the first such work to be created in 3D. Selick has said that he specifically designed the 3D to draw viewers inside the film, rather than making things pop out of the screen. The characters here are almost infinitely expressive, and the sheer high level of nightmarish imagination constantly surprises. (The film is not a musical, but it does contain one or two little songs.)

Coraline is dazzling and imaginative, with the recognizable vision of a singular artist, but it's also psychologically astute and utterly fearless. (It's the best animated feature I've seen since Miyazaki's Spirited Away.) It has a PG rating, and it's technically a family film, but should only be shown to the bravest and hardiest of children. In reality, it's a film for grownups that remember their childhood, and it's a film that takes animation in America to an entirely new level. It's "dark" and it's a "masterpiece."

DVD Details: Universal has released a two-disc DVD set with a bunch of extras, as well as a huge Blu-Ray set. I received the single-disc set for review. It comes with both 2D and 3D versions, and a commentary track by Selick and composer Bruno Coulais. The 2D version looks great, and the 3D version is occasionally impressive, but some scenes appear pale, and other scenes appear blurry. Probably better to watch the 2D first.

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