Starring: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French
Rated: PG for thematic elements, scary images, some language and suggestive humor
Running time: 101 minutes
Bottom line: The first great movie of 2009
It must be difficult living in Tim Burton’s shadow. How nice that Henry Selick has managed to escape it.
Selick directed "The Nightmare Before Christmas," yet the name everyone associates with that movie is the publicity-stealing Burton. While Selick’s visual style remains akin to Burton’s, after "Coraline"— made completely independently of Burton — there should be no doubt that Selick is a major artist in his own right.
Adapted from a Neil Gaiman book, "Coraline" is a masterpiece of stop-motion animation. Yes, masterpiece. Selick and his animators have made possibly the most technically sophisticated stop-motion film ever. Improbably, they have also managed to retain all the charm of Gaiman’s story and characters.
Coraline (Dakota Fanning) is an imaginative young girl whose mother (Teri Hatcher) and father (John Hodgman) don’t pay her much attention. They are writers currently working on a book about gardening, even though neither likes to get dirty. They don’t devote much time or affection to Coraline. At one point, Coraline’s mother spells out the family roles: "Dad cooks, I clean, you stay out of the way."
So irresistibly precocious Coraline investigates the boarding house they’ve just moved into and meets the neighbors, which include Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French), aging sisters and former burlesque performers, and Mr. Bobinksy (Ian McShane), a circus acrobat currently training a performing mice act.
She also befriends a similarly neglected boy named Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.) and his cat (Keith David), who live nearby.
Coraline soon discovers a portal to a sort of bizarro version of the house and her family. She enters this alternate world and all her desires seem to be fulfilled. Everything her "other" mother and father and all the neighbors do is for her benefit.
This perfect world is, of course, not what it seems, and the lesson she learns is valuable: expecting the world to cater to all our whims and wishes isn’t healthy.
Coraline’s Other Mother eventually reveals herself to be a monstrous incarnation of greed and jealousy, and Coraline must figure out how to escape back to her real family and not-so-perfect life.
"Coraline" is a genuine achievement in stop-motion animation. The character animation is as expressive as I have ever seen, and I’ve seen just about every stop-motion film ever made. Facial expressions are difficult in all forms of animation, but the work here rivals classic Disney or recent Pixar.
The all-star voice cast also deserves praise for actually playing roles rather than merely lending their recognizably famous voices to sell the movie.
As is the trend, "Coraline" can be seen in 3-D, which occasionally does enhance the look of the film. Thankfully, though, the 3-D doesn’t detract from the distinctive charm of the stop-motion animation.
Use "Nightmare Before Christmas" as a reference to decide whether the film might be too frightening for children. "Coraline" doesn’t pack as much macabre imagery by volume, but Coraline’s Other Mother is quite an intense character. There is also one hugely awkward performance piece featuring Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, who wears only a G-string and pasties. It’s a very funny scene, but showing a near-naked old lady puppet is, admittedly, questionable.
Aside from that caution, "Coraline" is a master work of animation, which I give the highest possible recommendation.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.