Late to the party: Coraline

Simon finally catches up with Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick’s outstanding animated movie Coraline. Don’t make the same mistake that he did…

Dakota Fanning voices Coraline.

Life has a horrible habit of getting in the way of things. For the past year or so, I’d been bleating on to anybody who’d listen about how Coraline was the film I was really looking forward to in the months ahead, and as far as I was concerned, my ticket was booked and I’d be sat front and centre. I’d probably be eating my popcorn a little too noisily too, no doubt to the annoyance of the 15-year-old three throws in front, who was trying to concentrate on texting her mates. Modern day cinema-going, eh?

When the film arrived in the US earlier this year, my excitement levels shot through the roof, and yet when Coraline made her UK bow a couple of months later, I couldn’t get near a screening of the film for love nor money. Is it just me that these things happen to?

I’d made fellow Den Of Geek writer Michael Leader utterly aware of my jealousy at him being able to talk to Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick about the project earlier this year too (you can find links to his interviews with the pair at the bottom of this piece), and when the US Blu-ray was announced, I placed an import order immediately.

The disc turned up Saturday morning.

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There are two reasons why Coraline had been a project that shot to the top of my to-watch list. The first is Neil Gaiman, a man who needs little introduction around these parts, who wrote the award-winning novella that the film is based on. And the second is Henry Selick.

I did a straw poll of a few friends over the weekend, asking them a simple question: who directed the film The Nightmare Before Christmas. Every single one of them said Tim Burton. These were people who like their films, too, and don’t just go fishing at Blockbuster every weekend for something suitable to watch (not that I’ve got anything against that). And they were all wrong.

Tim Burton is clearly a genius, and it was his idea, his characters and his world that brought The Nightmare Before Christmas into being. But the man who actually performed the clearly insignificant task of directing the film? That’d be Henry Selick, whose stunning work on the project I’ve always felt deserved far more credit than the man tends to get. You want further evidence? Go and get a copy of his film of James And The Giant Peach, to this day one of the very best Roald Dahl adaptations to hit the big screen. It’s a joyously visual spectacle, with wonderfully realised characters and a real charm ever-present throughout. Both Nightmare and Peach are expertly paced, don’t outstay their welcome, and have plenty of rewatch appeal. Just ask my DVD player.

And then there’s Monkeybone. This was a high profile flop for 20th Century Fox in 2001, breaking a run of hits for Brendan Fraser in the process and seemingly keeping Henry Selick away from directing a film for several years. But don’t write the film off. It has its problems, but the tale of a cartoonist trapped in his own world has more to it than you may be led to believe. Heck, you might even call it a bit of a gamble. Remember those?

But anyway: Coraline.

I’ve written quite a lot about animated movies at Den Of Geek, and found Coraline the perfect antidote to the parade of computer generated animals that are doing the rounds in them right now. Bluntly, if you’ve ever found yourself complaining about the routine, lavish-looking yet by-the-numbers animated features that are too often thrown in our direction, then you really need to be digging out a copy of Coraline soon.

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For the first part of the film, I found myself marvelling at the sheer visual spectacle of it. Stop motion animation is supposed to be yet another animated form from the past, but in Henry Selick, it’s found one hell of a modern day champion for it.

The challenge with animation, of course, is that the director has to choose absolutely everything that goes in the frame, and Selick is a master at this. The world of Coraline is brimming with detail, and I found myself often just stopping and gazing at it in wonder. Throw in his clever use of lighting – not just in the ‘tunnel’ sequences, but whenever he wants to shift the tone of the film – and you begin to wonder whether anyone else could have done this. Heck, I like Tim Burton, but the stop motion movie that he directed, Corpse Bride, was one of the most crushing cinematic disappointments for me over the past five years.

Coraline wasn’t. And just when I was relaxing into the story, it then took a really quite sinister and unsettling turn. It does it logically, and not in a way that I want to spoil here, but the shift that takes place is superbly realised, and had me sitting bolt up in my chair. It doesn’t waste it, either, and the back end of the film, where Selick starts – quite literally – peeling back the world of Coraline, is both visually staggering and utterly compelling. Several times I found myself looking at the screen and just wondering how the hell they did that. And that doesn’t happen very often any more.

I was more unnerved by moments within Coraline – particularly the buttons! – than anything that live action has thrown at me in the last year or two, and characters such as the Other Mother will be sticking with me for some time to come. It’s one hell of a piece of work.

My sole regret is that I didn’t get to see the film on a really big screen (although my telly did its best), where the 3D effect may have had more impact than it did in my living room (not helped by the cheap as chips 3D specs that are included in the Coraline box). Fortunately, many others didn’t make the same mistake I did, as the film to date has grossed $115m across the world. It’s proof that you can make an edgy animated film, without a focus group knocking those edges off, and still have a solid hit.

Selick is currently attached next to an adaptation of Alan Snow’s children’s novel Here Be Monsters, although only in a producer capacity right now. According to IMDB Pro, meanwhile, Neil Gaiman has seven projects in different stages of production. After spending a delightful 100 minutes or so in the company of Coraline, I’ll gladly, I’ve decided, support whatever venture the pair do next.

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And this time, I promise I’ll actually turn up…

Coraline is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the US now (the Blu-ray is region free), with a UK release following in the Autumn…