February 20, 2009

Touched By Nightmare and Fantasy

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When I told my friends that I was going to go see Coraline over the weekend, most of them either had no idea what I was talking about — “What’s a Coraline?” — or were prepared to ridicule me for my affinity for animated films — “Isn’t that a kid movie?” And while the film is indeed an animated feature that primarily caters to the young at heart, this is a film that transcends all age barriers, as Coraline is an enchanting picture distinguished by its unique amalgamation of youthful spirit and whimsical charm. Characterized by its eye-popping visuals and mystical story line, this is a tightly-focused movie that keeps you engaged throughout.
Coraline tells the story of Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning), our spunky 11-year-old protagonist, who moves into the Pink Palace Apartments in Oregon with her loving but distracted parents (capably voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgeman). On the first week of her moving in, Coraline meets a strange boy named Wybie Lovat (Robert Bailey, Jr.) whose grandmother used to live in the Pink Palace apartments. He gives her a doll that curiously resembles Coraline the next day. Coraline also encounters a stray black cat (Keith David) that is familiar to the neighborhood. While exploring her new surroundings one night, Coraline follows a small mouse that goes through a dark corridor beyond the door, which leads her to a world parallel to the house grounds. From there the story turns fantastical, as the black-button-eyed inhabitants of this imaginary Other World prove to be far more interesting and attentive than those from Coraline’s own world. In the interest of not disclosing too much of the plot, I will end my discussion here; however, what ensues is a thrilling continuum of wonderland adventures that are balanced between beauty and deep, disconcerting creepiness.
Coraline is an animated stop-motion 3-D film featuring animation meticulously executed through sculptured figures rather than drawn images. At its peak of production, the film involved the efforts of 450 people, including 35 animators and more than 250 technicians and designers. Even one crew member did nothing but knit miniature sweaters and other clothing for the puppet characters, using knitting needles as thin as human hair. As director Henry Selick stated in an interview, “Coraline [was] a huge risk. But these days in animation, the safest bet is to take a risk.” Fortunately, these exhaustive efforts paid off, as Coraline is as finely crafted as it was planned.
Based on Neil Gaiman’s 2003 fantasy/horror novella of the same name, the novel’s storyline has often been compared to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland because of its surrealism and plot based on an alternate-reality. However, the film stylistically shares more similarities to its stop-motion cousins The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, films that were exquisitely realized novel adaptations. Unsurprisingly, both of these films were written and directed by Henry Selick, who adeptly plays these roles here once again. The suspenseful tone and haunting atmosphere that is felt throughout this film is palpable, as I have rarely seen a film that does a better job interpreting juvenile fright. This film is so full of childhood feelings and the naive innocence that comes along with it, that I was unequivocally absorbed in the film’s unpredictable twists and turns.
Another refreshing surprise of Coraline was how effective director Henry Selick utilized the third dimension. So often in today’s film landscape, 3-D has been wasteful window dressing, a strategy employed by studio heads to generate higher ticket returns (Bolt, anyone?). And yet, the 3-D aspects of Coraline are delightfully subtle. It’s true that now and then random objects come careening at your head, but the purpose here is neither arbitrary nor filler. Instead, Selick employs this technology to add depth and intrigue to his mystical world he created. The glasses you put on are thus not a gimmick but an aid to seeing what’s already there.
It is a shame that this film has not achieved much buzz among the college audience, for it universally deserves to be seen. In spite of its PG rating, there are numerous adult thematic elements, scary images, and suggestive humor that relieve this film from its for-kids-only typecasting. Moreover, it has already proven to be a box office success, and I suspect at least a few more of my peers will delight in its charms as I did. At the very least, in response to my confused friend, you now know what a Coraline is. It’s one heck of a film.