February 8, 2009


Here's something unusual, a refreshingly old-fashioned fairy story; a morality tale executed in a style on the verge of becoming a lost art. Most adults are likely well acquainted with its tagline, some may need a reminder, but to young persons — inundated as they are nowadays with fanciful egocentric escapist tales of outcast mutants and disenchanted vampires — "be careful what you wish for" may serve as a stark reminder of reality's actual premise.

Director Henry Selick's new feature film revolves around Coraline, a nine-year old girl, reluctantly resettled from bustling Michigan to the remotest corner of darkest Oregon with her rather preoccupied parents. When not busy with a crucial writing deadline, they dish out bland vegetarian cuisine and flaccid platitudes. They share their new home — a creaky old mansion subdivided into apartments — with a Russian acrobat and former dancing-mouse dompteur, and a retired, salacious nightclub act that mounts its multitude of deceased Scotties on its walls.

The only other kid around appears to be a certifiable geek, so there's little to do in these drab, remote, barren lodgings until — ignored by her parents and too proud to hang out with the geek and his mangy magical moggy — Coraline chances upon a parallel universe eerily similar, yet vastly improved, to her own. Alas, things rapidly and quite definitely prove not to be what they seem, leaving Coraline struggling not only to retain her own existence but every last boring detail of it.

The film is based on the popular, award-winning novella by Neil Gaiman, which itself could be interpreted as a semi-biographical account of growing up as a second generation Scientologist. The use of buttons for dolls' eyes is certainly suggestive, as the term "button" among Scientologists — in reference to the ones one needs to push in order to illicit a specific emotional response from another person — occupies a particularly important place in their psychobabble arsenal. A diminutive person, for instance, may have a "stature button", an obese person a "weight button", etc.

However, Gaiman provided director Selick with the manuscript long before it was published, and Selick has definitely made the story his own. Without altering it so much as to completely disappoint fans of the book, the buttons in the film simply serve as the eyes of handmade dolls and dastardly delusions; while retaining their symbolism as portals of the soul, they don't (nor does any other aspect of the film) appear to be a clever wink in the direction of a certain greedy, crackpot cult.

As one might expect from the director of the classic stop-motion animation musical The Nightmare Before Christmas, the soundtrack is engaging even though only one of They Might Be Giants' original songs was included. The award-winning college radio favourites, who've penned numerous children's songs not exclusively aimed at children, were originally engaged to provide the film's music
; excluding them for not being "creepy" enough is truly a wasted opportunity.

The voice cast reunites the retired comic duo of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders as the quirky and quite inimitable Ms Forcible and Ms Spink, the eccentric variety performers of a variety not entirely unrelated to that of the Belleville triplets, while Coraline's father — to the joy of anoraks everywhere — is performed by John Hodgman, the Mac aficionado infamous for portraying "PC" in the devastatingly brilliant Get a Mac television adverts.

The exquisitely executed stop-motion animation of director Henry Selick's crew would've delighted such pioneers of the art as Władysław Starewicz, Jiří Trnka, and Ray Harryhausen. While its limited use of digital effects does lend the film a sheen similar to the more ubiquitous computer generated animation features, the painstaking stop-motion process — moving tiny objects, millimetre by millimetre across a three-dimensional, table-top set — immerses the viewer in an atmosphere seldom achieved by other forms of animation.

As the longest stop-motion animated feature made to date, and the first to be filmed entirely in 3-D, it's also a groundbreaking film. Dabbling in stereoscopic imagery, adding the illusion of depth, may at first seem as indulging in a gimmick long devoid of novelty (despite making somewhat of a comeback in cinemas lately), but used so moderately as in this instance, the technique is particularly effective — for example when bringing a classic Van Gogh to life.

The most novel aspect is undoubtedly Selick's approach to the morale of a story depicting a conflict between the imagined and the real; a variation of the classic "there's no place like home" theme, were "home" represents the world as it is not as one might want it to be. Though it could've ended on a typical reactionary note, it leaves Coraline's reality largely intact — made infinitely more inhabitable by it's imperfections than any imaginary world could be.

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