REVIEW: Coraline (Dir. Henry Selick)
Posted on February 17, 2009 by Chris Nash
It was opening night of Coraline and I was at the 9:45 show. Aside from a set of young parents and their two young children sitting in front of me, the audience for a movie marketed to kids was uncharacteristically full of asshole teenage emo-jock hybrids sitting in a collective guy to girl ratio of 2:1.
While I sat and waited for the movie to start the guys puffed themselves up and let everyone in the theatre know how everything around them was somehow gay. It was obvious why — they had to show the girls that they were men; only half of them would be able to take a girl home and make her cry in a forceful attempt to see a boob. And in the morning the girl gets a Nightmare Before Christmas keychain for her trouble, then it’s off to hockey practice.
The lights dimmed, and the trailers began. Even though I had my suspicions, I wasn’t absolutely convinced that Zach Efron’s new movie, 17 Again, was gay. But then the kids reassured all of us that it was — so thanks guys. As the movie began, we were treated to a credit sequence in which a disturbing set of metal fingers ritualistically gutted and skinned a rag doll. While this was going on I wondered what kind of trouble I would get into if I bought one of those high-pressured rubber pellet guns and started shooting those kids. Nothing hard. Nothing too violent. Just like a little nudge of, “Hey, shut up. Or I’ll fuck you until you like it. Then who’s gay? Huh?” Probably me at that point. But still, lessons learned are hard taught.
And as all of this was running around in my head I realized that there was no more chest-beating coming from the audience. Everyone was quiet and watching the disturbing ballet of imagery on screen. It was at that point everyone realized this might not be as playful of a kids movie as they had thought. And that played out until the end credits rolled. It is, without a doubt, a kids movie; but it does dance the line of morbidity. I can’t think of many other movies geared toward kids where ghost children plead with the main character to, “find our eyes!” so they can go to heaven.
Coraline, directed by Henry Selick and based on Neil Gaiman’s children’s book, is about a young girl who moves into the middle floor of an old house with her mother and father — two gardeners/authors who never have time to be parents. One night, after spending the day dealing with her eccentric top and bottom floor neighbours, she finds that a secret door in her living room leads to an alternate reality where her parents have buttons for eyes (referred to as the ‘Other Mother’ and ‘Other Father’) and smother her in love. Although she finds this a little unsettling at first, she does appreciate the attention. Everything seems to be going great for her until the Other Mother tells Coraline if she wants to stay in this alternate world she’ll have to sew buttons into her eyes. And everything gets crazier from there.
Technically, Coraline was the best stop-motion animated film I have ever seen. Maybe not the best stop-motion ever used in a film (Dragon Slayer is still top of the list), but as far as wall-to-wall animation goes, Coraline supersedes its predecessors (some of which Selick might also be paying tribute to in his depictions of Coraline’s old friends — who look like they’ve come straight from Will Vinton’s workshop). As far as animators go, Selick is more theatrical in his movements. Everyone exaggerates their actions and nobody is ever still (unlike animators such as Nick Park or Adam Elliot, who concentrate on the subtlety of facial features and nervous movements), but all of this works perfectly for Coraline. Maybe too perfect. In a world where CGI is looking more and more like traditional and stop-motion animation, I think the perfection of the movement in Coraline might have a lot of people not realizing they’re looking at tangible objects.
The voice talent (from Dakota Fanning, John Hodgman, and Teri Hatcher among others) is surprisingly good. Although a lot of people will tend to compare Coraline with Nightmare Before Christmas, it’s not. Not at all. Coraline doesn’t try to be cute. It doesn’t treat its material as fun. Selick’s characters don’t break out in song (aside from one by John Hodgman’s Other Father — but it’s written and sung by They Might Be Giants, so I’m not holding it against him); they don’t playfully relish the darkness like everyone in TNBC; and they don’t treat the uncanny around them as a cute departure from the everyday.
Near the middle of the movie, as things got darker, the two children in front of me were noticeably scared. They even started whimpering and crying a little. Maybe it was because their parents wouldn’t let them leave. But the kids stuck through it, and by the end they were all smiles. And I felt the same way — I wouldn’t necessarily think of Coraline as a kids movie, but it’s a journey that kids would appreciate more than the rest of us. The emo-jocks thought it was pretty gay.