DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Coraline

Tuesday 28 July 2009


Coraline (2009) dir. Henry Selick
Feature voice talents of: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French


I’m not sure what I was expecting with “Coraline” but certainly everything I had read about Henry Selick’s latest stop motion venture, an adaptation of revered fantasy author Neil Gaiman’s book about a girl who discovers a doppelganger fantasy world in her new home, led me to believe this was one of the best stop motion animated films ever made. And so being underwhelmed by an emotionally vacant story led me to believe that I missed something crucial from the 3-D theatrical experience.

The set-up is simple, due to financial problems young Coraline (voice by Dakota Fanning) and her two parents have moved to a new home, in a desolate town in a wasteland of isolation. Living in a sparsely decorated house with no friends and a set of parents who take no notice of her concerns has thus retreated the girl into an inward depression. One day while exploring the nooks and crannies of the house she discovers a small door which leads to mysterious portal. Like any youngster, she crawls into the unknown to see where it will lead.

She emerges in a Wizard of Oz-like doppelganger world, a mirror of her house, inhabited by duplicates of her parents and other citizens of her town. It’s identical except everyone’s eyes are removed and replaced with buttons. The creepiness of these images is tempered with overly-gracious hospitality from her ‘other parents’. And so this other world acts like a joyful carefree version of her real world. Eventually Coraline discovers nefarious ulterior motives from her other parents, a trap to ensnare Coraline, steal her eyes and imprison her.

Before we discuss, I should get out of the way that the film meets all technical expectations of a filmmaking method which is notoriously labourious but wondrous in it’s visual possibilities. Henry Selick arguably is the pre-eminent feature stop motion animator in the world – the man responsible for “A Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach” and indeed the craftsmanship behind this film equals those two others.

The gothic imagery and sometimes truly frightening characters and situations Coraline encounters is a certainly a fresh departure from the usual Pixar-influenced fare we get from Hollywood studio animation. But Selick's film accompanies his uniquely dark adult-oriented tone with frustrating unsophisticatedness in story and character, which results in a palpable hollowness. The story borrows from the familiarness of classic fairytales – a troubled child develops her own fantasy world. For the first 45mins it's a conflict-free set-up of this alternate world. The shoe drops on an arbitrary piece of information we learn from the cat – thus, a discovery not earned by the character. Once Coraline learns the true nature of the other world, we expect a change of pace, an increase in stakes and heightening of action from Coraline. We don’t get it. Coraline continues to moves between the worlds at will – sure her parents are gone, why? And how, we’re never sure.

Perhaps because the boundaries of this new fantasy world are never quite clear, with new rules added as the film goes along. And so we never get the feeling that Coraline is trapped or will not get out of her predicament. And from a character perspective, does Coraline learn a lesson or enrich her appreciation of her own parents, or does her real parents learn something from Coraline’s journey or heroism? No. Her parents have forgotten everything that has happened. Maybe it was all just a dream?

I missed the theatrical 3-D experience, and perhaps that spectacle would have distracted me from these nickpicking story-points. The DVD contains both 2-D and 3-D versions of the film, but sadly the 3-D is more of a distraction. The red & blue tinted glasses means a constantly shifting colour palette – ie. In the opening scene the sky switches between yellow and white as my two eyes never could combine the two colours properly. And so, unless their eyes work better than mine (which is possible) I suspect most DVD viewers will eventually take off the glasses and settle on the 2-D version, and thus, an inferior version of the film.

"Coraline" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Alliance Films in Canada

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