I have always loved movies that utilize the painstaking stop-motion animation technique, dating back to when I saw the original King Kong as a young boy. I even created my own stop-motion animation effects for student films I made. I was therefore looking forward to Coraline, especially since it is directed by Henry Selick, the undisputed modern master of stop-motion animation thanks to his and Tim Burton’s classic The Nightmare Before Christmas.
I wasn’t disappointed. Coraline is the most eye-popping, lovingly crafted film using the technique to date, and it’s even better in 3-D. Adapted by Selick from a book by fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, it follows the exploits of its titular heroine as she first discovers and then tries to escape from a seductive alternate reality.
Just relocated to a small town and neglected by her real-life parents, who are both preoccupied with their writing and gardening projects, Coraline (given wonderful, cynical voice by Dakota Fanning) is lured through a small, plastered-over door to the magical lair of her doting “Other Mother” and “Other Father.” They show Coraline the warmth and affection she’s been missing, but there’s something amiss: everyone in this parallel world has buttons sewn where their eyes should be.
The film’s advertising tagline has been “Be Careful What You Wish For,” which effectively sums up this cautionary tale that isn’t only for children … and make that children ages 6 and over due to some intense sequences and mildly disturbing images. Adults, too, can appreciate the displaced Coraline’s yearning for attention and support. For adult viewers, the slogan “The grass is always greener on the other side” also sums up Coraline’s thesis well.
In addition to Fanning, the remainder of the film’s excellent voice cast is noteworthy. Teri Hatcher, Desperate Housewives’ own Susan Mayer, voices both of Coraline’s mothers with an unpredictable mix of maternal concern, frustration and malevolence. Similarly, John Hodgman (best known as the “Resident Expert” on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) plays both Coraline’s Father and Other Father.
Fabulous Brit comediennes Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders give hilarious voice to Coraline’s eccentric, faded-star neighbors, Miss Forcible and Miss Spink (respectively). Ian McShane (Deadwood) is the even more eccentric Mr. Bobinsky, ringmaster of a mouse circus. And Keith David, who has given memorable performances in everything from John Carpenter’s The Thing to the Oscar-winning Crash, lends his distinctive voice to the simply named Cat, who, like most characters in this tale, is more than he appears.
Selick’s hyper-detailed designs here are more whimsical and his direction more confident than in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, as accomplished as that movie is. Special mention must also be made of Bruno Coulais’ score, which is chiefly comprised of a creepy children’s choir whispering barely-understandable lyrics. Whatever they’re singing, the music suits Coraline and her unusual world(s) to a T.
UPDATE: Coraline is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.