If there are two people who should have made a movie together long before now, it’s Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman. Henry Selick is the man responsible for directing The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, two classics of modern stop-motion animation, while Neil Gaiman is the acclaimed author of the best modern fantasy works being written today, an incredible series of comics/graphic novels, and has become one of the few authors I routinely seek out and read. With a pedigree like this, could the movie possibly go wrong?
Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) is an adventurous, precocious 11 year old girl with a problem. Her parents Mel and Charlie (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman, respectively) don’t pay her the slightest bit of attention. They’re academics who mostly work from home, and like most folks who work from home, they have a bit of trouble compartmentalizing. They spent infinitely more time hunched in front of their computers, clattering away, than they do with their only daughter. Making matters worse, her parents required a job move from their home in Michigan to rainy old Oregon, leaving Coraline stuck in a rickety old house full of crazy boarders like Misses Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Forcible (Dawn French), the retired burlesque girls, and Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), a giant Russian acrobat with a jumping mice show. To make matters worse is Coraline’s ‘stalker’, the grandson of the owner of the Pink Palace Apartments where she and her family live, a youngster named Wybie (short for Wyborne, played by Robert Bailey, Jr.) has taken it upon himself to be Coraline’s friend. Not exactly what she had in mind, given how much the boy talks.
Coraline, who finds herself constantly underfoot of her harried parents, finds herself pawned off on her unusual neighbors, Wybie, or given meaningless tasks around the house. For example, she has to count all the doors and windows, and everything blue in the house. While on one of these expeditions she finds a strange little half-sized door, just large enough for a child to crawl through. During the day, the door has bricks behind it, but at night, when all things are possible, the door is the passage to another world. A dream world where Coraline’s button-eyed Other Mother is waiting to dote and love on her neglected, lonely daughter. A world that will ultimately be too good to be true…
Coraline is a staggeringly beautiful film. This is a work of art from Henry Selick, the heir to Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation throne. As the film moves from the drabness of Coraline’s reality to the beauty of her fantasy world, and again to the darkness of her nightmare world, the same whimsical, weird characters ease subtly from cute to chilling. This film is simply incredible. The level of detail in Coraline’s worlds is hard to match, and several scenes are just jaw-droppingly beautiful, intricately detailed works that border on magic. You’ll easily see why Coraline falls in love with her dream world, because you’ll fall in love with her dream world too. The 3-D is used, not as a gimmick, but as a way to add depth to the screen while not detracting from the film’s inevitable presentation in 2-D.
One of the big appeals of the first Shrek movie is how there’s something in the story for everyone, regardless of age. The same is true of Coraline. Kids get an adventure story with colorful characters, and adults get a sublimely creepy, disconcerting experience with those same colorful characters. That’s one of the hallmarks of both Neil Gaiman and Selick. This shared world view of charm mixed equally with dread is why this collaboration works incredibly well. The pacing is crisp, but never hurried, and Selick really takes the original story and brings it to life with his screen adaptation.
Also working surprisingly well is Teri Hatcher. I don’t think she’s much of an actress these days, for reasons I shouldn’t go into because of potential libel, but her voice can certainly still act even if her face isn’t as responsive as it once was. She’s really outstanding in this dual role, especially as the Other Mother. Ditto Dakota Fanning, who is one of the rare younger actresses who can do precocious without crossing over into obnoxious. Kudos to Keith David for his excellent work in the film as well. It really is a picture with no real weaknesses.
I can sometimes fall into a trap where I’ll see a film, review it positively, then look back and ask myself, “What in the hell were you thinking?” For example, my Hostel 2 review, in retrospect, makes me look like I’m a huge fan of psychotropic drugs. This will not be one of those, as I’m certain Coraline will end up becoming as beloved as The Nightmare Before Christmas before it. It might even be better.