Monday, March 30, 2009

Coraline (2009)

At a time when too many animated family films needlessly coddle children at the expense of educating them through the mythical art of storytelling, along comes Coraline, which seems to stand athwart so many of the easy, uncomplicated children films routinely pumped out—a kind of cinematic over-medication of immediately attractive sights that are time-tested. A crushingly obvious example would be the recent Monsters vs. Aliens, which does nothing less (and certainly nothing more) than promise every child lots and lots of monsters and aliens on the screen. The story and characters do not matter in all too many instances; the pablum tacked on to make the experience at least nominally cohesive is rarely meaningful. Coraline, however, is a veritable one-film renaissance of family movie-making: Henry Selick's more intense, yet subtly transcribed, treatment of fairytale touches upon something more peculiar and universal all at once, because it seems legitimately childlike.

Selick's film is based on Neil Gaiman's book, and as in Selick's adaptation of the eccentric children's writer Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach (1996), Selick preserves the spirit of the source material by giving it literally moving, cinematic life without robbing it of its quintessence. Coraline is a rather unnervingly eerie story about a pre-teen girl (voiced here by Dakota Fanning) who finds her parents unpalatable to her wishes and desires. Her mother (a terrific Teri Hatcher) ignores her and the food she makes for her is uninspired; her father (John Hodgman) is too busy at his computer for his work to spend much time with her. Coraline sees herself as a child alone, in a gray, downcast world. If only she could escape.

It could be said that Coraline is perfect children's nightmare fodder because Selick makes the film follow nearly flawless nightmare-logic. In an impressive credits sequence that opens the film, a pair of menacing metallic hands hurriedly de-construct a doll, pulling out its button eyes and in an act that may linger in the minds of children, rip the innards of the doll out, after which the doll is re-fashioned, unmistakably looking like the film's heroine. Coraline as a narrative incisively comments on the remaking of children—through sundry forms of medication, for instance—as “happy.” Gaiman's story supersedes the potentially banal conclusion to be reached from his own tale (which can admittedly be useful as the film's tag-line—“Be careful what you wish for”); Coraline is in part about systematic perfecting of the corporeal at the expense of the spirit's obliteration. When little Coraline discovers a secret passageway to an alternate world, she initially believes she has found a panacea; her “Other Mother” (again voiced by Hatcher) cooks lavishly spectacular meals for her, and her “Other Father” (Hodgman, again) helps oversee a breathtaking garden that plays into the worst, most narcissistic impulses of children.

The blue-haired Coraline is put through the emotional wringer that hurts the most. Acceptance may be the story's most pointed “message”: at last, Coraline must begrudgingly accept her parents, as well as the strange and bizarre cast of neighborhood characters (two washed-up, has-been burlesque queens, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible and a hilarious Russian acrobat and trapeze artist named Mr. Bobinsky voiced by Ian McShane) who inhabit her world. The “Other World” characters are more superficially arresting, with more colorful personalities, but the superannuated qualities of the “real world” characters is gradually viewed in a new, radicalized light once Coraline realizes that the “Other World” is one horrifying snare run by the “Other Mother.” Only a talking black cat (perfectly voiced by Keith David) can move about each world along with Coraline, bringing childhood imagery full circle through gentle subversion: that which appears evil, such as a notorious haunter of bad luck like the black cat, proves indispensable to fighting against what looks like a heaven-sent paradise.

Dreadful menace permeates Coraline, and even the way in which Coraline moves about the Narnia- or Secret Garden-like entranceway connotes trepidation and tumult. To make this precisely, cinematically tangible, Selick utilizes stop-motion animation, which was an enriching choice. Like Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation, or perhaps the late Stan Winston's effects work, Selick's undertaking here bridges the human with the inhuman, bringing out an indelible cumulative effect that lends an uncommon verisimilitude to the fantastical. In one of the film's most bravura sequences, Coraline's “Other Father” leads her out to their garden, inviting the flowers to entrance the girl with their dancing. The scene, as well as a long, wonderful sequence in which the two show-business women—made younger and physically beautiful—in the fantasy world enthrall Coraline with a stunning number. Everything about Coraline's fantasy world seems so enticing, but the edifice of the entire facade proves to be one dishonest lure.

Like the merciless metallic hands at the film's opening, Selick brocades a textured, nuanced film. Informed by Gaiman's story, Coraline extrapolates what its imagery suggests: the “Other Mother” and her ilk are not only inhabitants of a child's fantasy world but also those who eagerly blind their progeny and others of the next generation, and therefore themselves. They exist in this world, and the blindness they inflict is just as painful in its many consequences as Hatcher's demonic alter-ego's obsession with replacing Coraline's eyes with buttons. As one ostensibly doomed character tells the blue-haired protagonist, “Find our eyes, and our souls will be free.” Thus, Selick, and Gaiman before him, provides the most elemental property of children's storytelling, wisely transmitting overwhelming concepts into perfectly accessible and understandable visual allegory, without reducing the potency of the amusing skein. The film powerfully stitches the truism that nothing is more pathetic than those who are so determined to enjoy themselves that they either help to create very industries based on such concepts or supply the demand for them. From Doctor Phil to the latest pill, to the “Other Mother,” faux contentment and happiness is not to be cherished or desired. If little Coraline can learn that, perhaps everyone can.


FilmDr said...

Nice job, as usual, Alexander.

I'm pleased to note that your conclusion is a little like mine:

"When it's not exploring the concept of the family as trap, Coraline calls attention to its own participation in socially-engineered, pseudo-happy, mediated worlds of endless distraction, all of it designed for children who will grow up to become equally distracted adults who inhabit grotesquely mediated worlds of their own. We all run the risk of going blind, the film suggests, and become "fixed" with age, losing our identities in the process. In its playful way, Coraline strikes me as grimly accurate."

Alexander Coleman said...

Wow, FilmDr. I just scurried over to your blog to check out what you wrote and I loved your take on this. We definitely took away several similar things from this film. Thank you for the kind words.

Anonymous said...

Bloody great review. I loed this film and you have wonderfully expressed why it is so good.

the editor., said...

Hi! Alexander,
What a very detailed and interesting review of an animated film that I most definitely,will seek out to watch...after reading your review, but of course!...

Alexander said,"At a time when too many animated family films needlessly coddle children at the expense of educating them through the mythical art of storytelling, along comes Coraline, which seems to stand athwart so many of the easy, uncomplicated children films routinely pumped out—a kind of cinematic over-medication of immediately attractive sights that are time-tested."

Alexander, director Henry Selick's 2009 film Coraline kind of reminds me, of director Tim Burton's 2005 animated film "Corpse Bride" in the sense that Burton's Corpse Bride animation, storytelling and "mythical art" didn't "coddle" children or even adults about the "truth" about death. (and the set background of the 2009 animated film Coraline do look "Burtonesque" to me too!)

I even read some reviews were the reviewers, did advise parents' that Tim Burton's Corpse Bride wasn't suitable for children under the ages of 8 or 9 years.
(I guess because the subject matter dealt with the topic of death in a "straight forward," "honest" and amusing(a strange word to use) way.)

Dcd ;-D

tim watts said...

I enjoyed this movie a lot. Very interesting and thought-provoking review, Alexander. Nice to see you take on a children's film at Coleman's Corner.

Alexander Coleman said...

Anonymous, thank you very much.

Dark City Dame, yes, I agree with you about Corpse Bride (a film I enjoyed as well!). The Burtonesque touches are present in Coraline as well. Thank you very much for all of the kind words and I hope you do see this (perhaps on DVD?) in the near future. I'm glad that my review seems to have motivated you to seek it out! :)

I agree that Coraline is perhaps a little too intense in places for very little children, but it's a judgment parents must make about their own kids. It's not a relentless horror-fest or anything, just rather eerie and unsettling, I imagine. It also plays into one of children's most primal fears--which is that they cannot trust their parents.

Thanks again, DCD!

Tim, thank you very much. Glad you liked the change of pace. I'm always attempting to cover as much of cinema as possible. Thanks for the kind words.

Sam Juliano said...

"Coraline is in part about systematic perfecting of the corporeal at the expense of the spirit's obliteration."

Absolutely, completely agreed.

I assigned Neil Gaiman's book to middle-school gifted and talented kids on two occasions, and I didn't get the kind of excitement that followed the like of Dahl's CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and Lemony Snicket's SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS books. I dare say it is Dee Dee who opined the comparson I was thinking of, albeit she beat me to the punch here (THE CORPSE BRIDE) in assessing the tone of this film (and book) It is indeed as you say "more peculiar" and it's universality is intwined in it's message of "acceptance." Again as you rightly suggest, elements of "subversion" and "menace" suffuse it's fabric, but this is certainly Gaiman's style.
As I mentioned at other blogs where the film was reviewed (I have not oddly, as I don't want to rain on it's parade so to speak, and I know the book is rather highly regarded) there is an emotionally distancing aspect to the film, which never allows it to resonante. I had the same feeling about THE CLASS (only mentioning it here as you just reviewed that too) even if that's tantamount to comparing SINGIN IN THE RAIN with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD!
Gaiman's THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, which recently won the 2009 John Newbery Medal, is a superior work, and I dare say it may well make an even stronger film. (I am told Neil Jordan is being mentioned as the prospective helmer) The element of fear there isn't (as it is in CORALINE) muted in some of the film's messages, but rather is part of the breathless story of escape/confinement/adventure/innocense/bonding. From such concerns, emotions will always emanate.

I agree the credit sequence in CORALINE is buffo, and it's stop-motion work is exemplary.

Raising the bar again, eh Alexander?

Alexander Coleman said...

Sam, thank you for that truly superb response, covering as you do the thematic work and subtext of Gaiman's book. I was fascinated by the significant difference in reception between that book and the others you allowed kids to read.

I do admit that this film is a bit distancing. I quite agree with the Dame's most perfect comparison as well, to Corpse Bride. Some of the themes are similar, to be sure.

I do think this film resonates, however, as a finely moral piece of work--but again, I offer the caveat that you do as well, Sam, which is that it is peculiar and at least somewhat distancing. Thank you for the many exceptional thoughts!

I'll have to take a look at Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. Thanks for the recommendation there.

mc said...

I enjoyed watching Coraline. As a child and now as an adult for sometime, I have always enjoyed good children's films. I always believed a good children's film added a little youth in spirit to one's life. However, after reading your review of Coraline, I realize how good children's films educate with their themes. Thanks for opening my eyes.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for that truly wonderful comment, mc. I'm very happy that you enjoyed this film so much, and that my review helped you consider your own thoughts on the picture in a different light. Thank you again.

Anna Koffersberg said...

I loved this movie so much! I could smooch you for writing this wonderful review, Alexander!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anna. No smooch required, but I appreciate the sentiment.

Anonymous said...

I can't wait for this one to hit DVD in about a month or so. I love the stop-motion animation. Tremendous review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous. I do not understand why more people do not love stop-motion animation, especially when so handsomely crafted. It has an otherworldly aesthetic that I find rather intoxicating, truthfully.

Anonymous said...

I hope people remember this flick cuz it's darned good family entertainment. I love the writer's description of it as "perfect children's nightmare fodder."

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous. I agree.

Xấu zai said...

In its playful way, Coraline strikes me as grimly accurate."

mrblack said...

’ve asked about you and they told me things
But my mind didn’t change
And I still feel the same
What's a life with no fun, please don’t be sogrupo perkinsmaintenance management

Justlia From TGR said...

Escort Århusben 10 games"When it's not exploring the concept of the family as trap, Coraline calls attention to its own participation in socially-engineered, pseudo-happy, mediated worlds of endless distraction, all of it