I’m a stop-motion animation aficionado, mainly thanks to the directorial talents of Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James & The Giant Peach) but for whatever reason I missed seeing Coraline when it was in theaters. I recently made up for that mistake by watching the Blu-ray release, and came away quite impressed. Coraline is based on a novel by acclaimed scribe Neil Gaiman, a kind of modern-day fairytale for kids who don’t appreciate how good they’ve got things in life.
Coraline’s family moves into an old house, and to kill the boredom of a workaholic mom and dad, she starts exploring its nooks and crannies. She soon notices what appears to be a doorway that’s been wallpapered over, and immediately needs to know where it leads. She successfully nags her mom into excavating and unlocking the door, only to find it leads to a plain old brick wall.
Disappointed but not dissuaded, she returns to the door after going to sleep one night and finds a secret passage way that opens into… the same old house. She soon discovers things aren’t entirely the same in this alternate universe: her dad showers her with love and attention and her mom cooks and bakes delicious food just for her. Everything seems great except for one thing: they have buttons for eyes.
If it wasn’t already, stop-motion has been raised to a high art with this film. The endless set details, the characters’ elastic facial expressions, and the wondrous special effects are a testament to the medium’s staying power. It’s quite easy to forget you are watching something that had to be made by hand piece by piece. In one spectacular scene, a few dozen mice dance for our enjoyment, while an unseen animator is driven mad. So talented are the craftsmen and animators that one could quite easily assume it was entirely computer generated. Selick went to great lengths not to resort to digital effects; where (I assume) post production cleaned up wires or seams in the puppets’ faces, the pain-staking work is completely transparent.
Untold hours of work are revealed in the special features, which show the process of creating effects like fog and fire (none of it CG), as well as the wonderfully robotic armatures (inner skeletons which give the puppets their stiffness). It also comes with four pairs of magenta/green 3D glasses for its 3D mode. The effect varies from decent to downright broken, and for my money the color desaturation that occurs makes the experience less enjoyable than without. Unfortunately the at-home 3D experience isn’t the same as that in theaters where polarization creates the effect.
Thankfully Coraline doesn’t fall into the same trap as the mediocre The Corpse Bride, which had stunning animation but a terrible story. The tale feels like a mix of Alice in Wonderland, Labyrinth, and Hansel and Gretel, but never feels tired or cliched. And do take its PG-13 rating seriously, I imagine this is high-octane nightmare fuel for really young kids.
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