Bottom line:Coraline is deliciously entertaining and a much-needed break from the current monotony of CG animation.
Known for mixing the childish with the chilling, director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) delivers on expectations with Coraline, the story of a young girl who escapes her humdrum life via a mysterious portal in her new home, only to discover that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the creepy tunnel. Overall a great film, Coraline’s biggest flaw comes from its own greatness — it’s so good in the beginning that when it slips into convention and convenience, there’s a feeling of disappointment.
Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning), a spunky 11-year-old with moxie to spare, is uprooted from her happy Michigan life and moved to dreary Oregon with her less-than-attentive parents. Annoyed and alienated, Coraline takes to exploring her new home — counting windows and doors and testing light switches — and discovers a small bricked up door in her living room. When night falls, however, Coraline revisits the tiny door and finds that not only is it no longer bricked up, but it now opens into a long tunnel, one which our curious Coraline crawls through. On the other side, she finds herself right back where she started, in her living room.
Except it’s not her living room. It’s better, happier and different in all of the right ways. During her exploration of this Other House, she encounters her Other Mother (voiced by Teri Hatcher), who cooks delicious food, encourages gameplay and is all smiles instead of scowls. Sure, she has buttons for eyes, but everyone in the Other World does, and they’re so wonderful, why get hung up on a little thing like that? To Coraline, everything in the Other World is perfect — until, of course, it’s not. And when it’s not, things go from fabulous to frightening in seconds. The Other Mother wants Coraline’s stay in the Other World to become permanent, but there’s a little technicality: Coraline must let the Other Mother sew buttons over her eyes. Coraline doesn’t love the Other World that much. Coraline must escape from the Other World and rescue both her parents and the ghosts of other children wooed by the Other Mother along the way.
Coraline is 90 percent brilliant. It is visually stunning, with beautifully detailed sets, nearly flawless stop motion animation and 3-D technology so advanced you can see the texture of Coraline’s sweater. Like many, I’ve been skeptical of digital 3-D and annoyed that it seems to be popping up everywhere lately. Though I foresee 3-D going the way of CG (incredible and breathtaking for a time, but soon to be overdone and uninspired), it’s important to note that it is an incredible technology — gone are the days of red and blue shades and fuzzy outlines. Digital 3-D is capable of being so clear and subtle that it’s easy to forget the glasses are there. Selick succeeds in using this technology as it should be used — to enhance the story. In Coraline, the 3-D makes textures pop, allows tunnels to expand into the screen and helps the audience experience depth and reflection in ways few have seen captured on film.
Selick’s characters are remarkably well-developed for a children’s movie and he succeeds in walking the thin line between genuine and genuinely creepy, making for a delightful modern fairy tale. Coraline isn’t a perfect little girl or a perfect heroine — she’s selfish and whiney. She pouts and stomps about. She thinks she’s always right no matter what and she’s bravest when nothing frightening is happening. Essentially, she’s real; she’s relatable. She’s likable because of, not in spite of, her flaws. Though her parents are afforded little screen time and they spend most of it ignoring or scolding our heroine, their love for their daughter is clear. As in real life, the words “I love you” don’t have to be spoken directly for the sentiment to be conveyed.
The film’s only flaw comes from failing to live up to the expectations it set for itself — not in pre-release hype (though that’s been high too), but during the actual movie. The first two-thirds of the film are spectacular, but when the drama begins to heighten as we approach the climax, the plot abandons its early ingenuity in favor of convenient twists and turns. Coraline’s quest to free her ghostly friends, for example, feels remarkably like watching someone else play a video game. Her ability to jump through the Other Mother’s hoops dances dangerously close to deus ex machina territory. Still, Selick and crew manage to bring much of the film’s early magic back for the climactic moment, though they owe Hansel and Gretel for the inspiration behind Coraline’s win in the (almost) final showdown against the Other Mother.
Coraline blends the whimsy of childhood innocence with excellent storytelling to create a film that has something to offer for everyone. It’s pure escapism, even if, in the end, it reminds you that escaping isn’t always the answer.