The curious case of Coraline’s buttons


I had the good fortune of speaking with a long-time stop-motion animator just prior to my screening of director Henry Selick’s “Coraline.”


He was involved with one of Selick’s most enduring masterpieces, “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” I lamented to him the fact that the stop-motion films of my youth have quietly and quickly fallen victim to the more cost-effective CGI imagery that has now become the industry norm.


And for all the leaps and bounds that this digital animation have progressed in live-action films throughout the years, there is still something that feels a bit…off. There is never a sense of anything tangible to them – just a reconfiguration of binary codes.


We both shared hope the Selick’s latest would somehow eke out acceptance in this digitized world, and perhaps engage a new generation of fans in this marginalized art form.


Of course, it would help, too, if the film itself did not suck.


I am happy to report not only on the lack of suckage in “Coraline”, but also to suggest that it may perhaps reinvigorate the industry and provide merit for future products.


Selick has found another like-minded muse for his talents, this time springing from the creatively twisted brain of author Neil Gaiman, whose novella of the same name provided the source for this film. Selick proves a perfect fit, even more so than the Jim Henson studios (that produced Gaiman’s criminally underseen “MirrorMask”) and Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn (who directed Gaiman’s criminally underappreciated “Stardust”).


It is perhaps because Selick is not afraid to turn the lights down even lower – to amplify the horror – knowing that even his younger viewers can handle the horror. In Gaiman’s kid lit, he was never one to shy away from the more ominous aspects of his tales, comfortably following Lewis Carroll down the proverbial rabbit hole.


Yet even at its most tense moments, Coraline contains nothing that cannot be handled by an accompanied 8 year old. For the lead is a mixture of Nancy Drew and Wednesday Addams – a naturally inquisitive little sprout who’s not grossed out by the creepy-crawly parts of her imagination.


We meet Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) arriving with her parents to a seemingly quaint Victorian-style home that has been converted to apartments populated with more oddities than a circus sideshow. Her parents (voiced by Terri Hatcher and John Hodgman), being of the modern-day variety, are too busy buried in their computers to wander the new digs with their daughter. So the young girl takes it upon herself to meet the two retired actresses (voiced by the “Absolutely Fabulous’s” Dawn French & Jennifer Saunders) who live beneath her,  and a Russian acrobat  (voiced by Ian McShane) above.


The entire landscape seems to be populated with precisely one other child, the eccentric Wyborn “Wybie” Lovat (voiced by Robert Bailey Jr.), whose notices Coraline’s striking resemblance to a doll owned by his grandmother.


The doll, combined with a key to a secret door within her home, sends Coraline into an “other” world, populated with a doting mother and father, and a life that seems imminently sunnier and happy that her colorless, boring existence.


This new world is offered to Coraline to stay in forever, provided one tiny little adjustment – that her “other” mother can sew buttons over her eyes like everyone else in that world. It’s a chilling proposal, and the look of the characters within this bizarre-o universe is vaguely reminiscent of the eyeless Jack Skellington creations of “Nightmare Before Christmas.”  


The resulting plot involves Coraline’s desire to return to her drab-but-comfortable life, leaving the colorful-but-costumed fantasy world behind (there is a reason both her neighbors dabble in the art of staged illusion).


The voice work is uniformly solid, with Hatcher in particular getting to wet her lips and deliver some seriously scary business as the “other” mother who morphs into a gangly praying mantis-like beast by the final act.


I can only imagine how much more wonder could be extracted from viewing the elaborately staged set pieces in 3-D, as the local theater screened it only in the 2-D format. But even without the added depth, “Coraline” feels as though it could break through the screen and envelop the audience in its rich, darkened tapestry.


And even in its most ominous of moments, the worlds created by Selick and his crew are ones that demand multiple visits to appreciate their somber beauty.

~ by usesoapfilm on February 12, 2009.

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