Coraline – Henry Selick And The Giant Letdown

By Scott Martin

Coraline, USA, 2009  Coraline is a 2009 stop-motion 3D fantasy children's film based on Neil Gaiman's 2002 novel of the same name.

Written and Directed by Henry Selick

Based on the Book Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Henry Selick, notable director of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), is hit or miss. With James and the Giant Peach (1996) and the aforementioned Nightmare under his belt, I’m not quite sure where he went wrong. Those two organically energetic and bright films were followed by Monkeybone (2001), and the soulless concoction of Coraline. His heart might have been in the right place, and I’m sure his intention outweighs the validity of the project, but it’s been years since I’ve seen a film so bereft of heart. This is not to imply that heart means something jolly or even fun, but rather a passion for craft, mainly. The film as a whole winds up being depressing, mainly because of this lack, and ugly for a slew of other reasons, and while moments of the film remain frightening, as does the entire idea behind it, there’s something intangible that’s hard to abide.

Coraline concerns a family moving from Pontiac, Michigan to Ashland, Oregon, taking residence in a place known as Pink Palace Apartments. In the family, there’s the workaholic father, Charlie (voiced by John Hodgman), the mother, Mel (voiced by Teri Hatcher), and the daughter, Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning). The parents seem not to have time to play with their daughter, or give her much love for some reason, so she often just goes to play on her own. It’s hard for Coraline to make friends because kids just think she’s weird, but when she’s given a doll that looks exactly like her, her adventures to a new world begin. She finds a hidden door in her new home, and behind it lies another new home, but with some startling additions; everything is the same, yet completely different. Her parents are there, but they notice her, and they have buttons sewn over their eyes (a tidy nod to the blindness most people turn to unyielding kindness and lack of personal agenda), and they want to do the same to her. They’re known as Other Mother and Other Father, and they hunt Coraline, trying to trap her in their dark, insidious, and ultimately cruel world. The grass is deadlier on the other side.

I had never seen a 3D film before I saw this in theaters on opening night. I’m still not quite sure what led me to believe it would be anything other than what it wound up being, but there was hype, and I got pulled in. That and I needed to break the 3D barrier on my viewing experiences. Of course, I’ve grown to dismiss the format as merely a gimmick in most cases, but never mind. I had been exposed to 3D before, but only on DVD with Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003) and on television (a season finale of The Secret World of Alex Mack, anyone?), so the hype was mainly that. It was a new kind of viewing experience, but in a film I probably wouldn’t enjoy. There’s a Gothic nature to the film that’s hard to deny, and I generally wind up loving ostensibly Gothic movies, if done correctly (it can be hard to pull off without a hitch). There are bright sides to it all, of course, as there are with most middling films; the screenplay captures the appropriate tone, and the animation (outside of the 3D) is wonderfully done. Outside of the mechanisms of the clock, though, I eventually have to check face, and it’s all bad timing.

Belying the tone of the screenplay, the performances play like something out of a video game, something you might hear in a Playstation cut scene, and there are enough Christopher Walken-esque pauses in the dialogue to make me pine for his cameo in Joe Dirt (2001). It seems as if the entire cast was reading their lines through a View Master. I’ve heard people talk about the difficulties of giving a fully-fleshed out performance in an animated film, but then I point them to Robin Williams in Aladdin (1992), Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo (2003), or Chris Sarandon in Selick’s own Nightmare, and the argument usually goes away. Ian McShane deserves better material. To a lesser extent, so does Teri Hatcher. The young Dakota Fanning is perfectly suited for the role of the precocious little girl who has nothing more to do than whine and complain most of the time, but she still botches it. She has insane talent; I’m just wondering where it all went.

While I can appreciate the tone, I can’t truly appreciate the treatment. I haven’t read Neil Gaiman’s 2002 novel, upon which the film is based, but I am familiar with his style. It’s unfortunate that it gets lost in the translation from page to screen. Selick has the makings of an original, thoughtful director, but this film doesn’t prove that, while his others do. The story is wonderful, at base, and there are a handful of technical aspects that do make the film pop, such as a beautifully intrusive musical score; also, the animation is wonderful and it’s hard to deny that (though the 3D dims the picture and takes away from quieter moments of the film), and the editing is top notch, but after appreciating what’s in front of you, you have to look at how it’s presented.

There are opportunities for this film to redeem itself, but it seems to get dragged into its own “Other World”and becomes dark, relentless, and out of control, as if the 3D glasses over our eyes would serve as buttons, so to speak. The blind simply don’t follow the blind. It’s overlong by about ten minutes, odd, disturbing, and lacking any sort of redemption, and its message isn’t something for which it’s worth sitting through the film. Nothing new is offered, but at the same time, nothing is really lost, either, and while I can say the animation was brilliant, if the whole film is what people consider groundbreaking, I’d prefer we put the dirt back.

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