May 3, 2009

Coraline [3D] [PG]

Dir: Henry Selick
I’ve repeatedly gone on record about the fact that I’m unconvinced by the new 3D ‘revolution’ that Hollywood is trying to bring us.  I remain extremely sceptical about the cinematic need (rather than the business sense) behind 3D, but I have finally seen the first great 3D film.

Henry Selick, like all stop motion animators, works slowly and painstakingly – this is his first film since 2001 live action debut Monkeybone – but here the long gestation period has paid off. It is easy enough to see his influences (Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, and particularly his brilliant Alice, are all over this movie), but Selick isn’t simply stealing, he’s paying tribute and taking inspiration from a fellow great in the field.

Coraline is a fantasy that any child, and any adult who remembers being a child, should be able to identify, as Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning), who thinks her busy parents have no time for her. Coraline finds a mysterious door in her new house which, when she goes through it, takes her to another world.  There her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) and Other Father (John Hodgman), who have buttons for eyes, shower her with attention and gifts, and everything is slightly, magically, different. It’s only later that Coraline discovers that this seemingly perfect world may be a trap. Selick, who adapted Neil Gaiman’s book as well as directing and acting as production designer, tells the story deftly, keeping the running time manageable and the narrative clear enough for the younger audience.  At the same time Coraline doesn't feel overedited or as if Selick is talking down to the kids, or indeed over their heads to the adult – a balance struck here better than in any film since The Incredibles.

At a visual level Coraline is stunningly beautiful.  The Nightmare Before Christmas, Selick’s most famous earlier film, bore the visual of influence of Tim Burton so heavily that the director still isn’t properly credited for it, this one seems to come totally from Selick himself. The character design is simply exquisite. Coraline herself is beautifully stylised and extraordinarily expressive, the animation so smooth that you almost forget that its stop motion and begin, at times, to think you’re watching a Pixar movie. What’s most impressive is the way that Selick gives every character (and every incarnation of every character) a look all of their own, yet craft a consistent creative vision for the film as a whole. The differences between the two worlds are mainly drawn in the film’s stunning use of colour, and the evolution of this as the other world changes throughout the film is one of its most visually stunning aspects.

There are some truly bravura sequences in this movie – the moment that Coraline walks right around the other world, a garden seen from above, the final transformation of the Other Mother and more – it’s a genuine feast for the eyes all the way through. Happily the 3D works perfectly with, for the first time, no technical problems to be seen, and a much more natural feel to the process than ever before. There’s little use of things popping out of the screen at you and while I still find the process more distracting than enveloping, and I still don’t quite see that any film needs to be 3D (certainly this one doesn’t, even in 2D it will be beautiful and entrancing) it does work and is very well used, with several striking effects, notably the tunnel between the two worlds.

You probably shouldn’t take under 8’s to this movie, because it has some pretty scary images along with the beautiful ones.  However, scaring children and then allowing them to realise both that the story has a happy ending and that it’s just a story is important, and there can be few better ways to give them that experience than with this film. It’s genuinely involving, extremely well acted, particularly by Fanning and Hatcher and by turns frightening, funny and in the end not a little moving. All in all this is the finest fantasy film since Pan’s Labyrinth.

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