Friday, February 13, 2009

Childhood Darkness

CoralineWritten by Henry Selick , Directed by Henry Selick, From the Novel by Neil Gaiman, Starring Dakota Fanning, Terri Hatcher, John Hodgins, Laika Entertainment, 2009


Believe me, between The Littlest Critic and myself, I don’t know which one of us was more excited to go see this movie, though I suspect I might have edged past her by a nose. After all, when you’re a kid there are so many things to be excited about, like finding a stuffed animal you thought was lost or getting a cookie with sprinkles, things that adults are distracted from fully enjoying, leaving you free to obsess over adaptations of younger readers’ novels.

And thus it was the day after it opened (chosen strategically in case the movie was as frightening as the fabled “cellar” chapter) that we hastened to the first showing and got ourselves settled in. Contraband snacks? Check. Contraband water bottle? Check. Stuffed animal brought along for comfort? Check. And then the previews started.

(I won’t waste much time on that, because I’m sick to damn death of the previews for Dreamworks Monsters v. Robots. Dreamworks cartoons are hit or miss affairs with a pretty limited shelf-life and a sock-o sense of gag material. This film looks like it’s so chock full of these gags to degree that the film itself serves as a vehicle for the gags, rather than the jokes coming about through the plot or characters. Dreamworks films tend to rely on up-to-the-minute cultural references that are dated by the time the films hit video, in my opinion. Go back and watch the first Shrek and tell me if it doesn’t already feel an artifact. Can you say the same forFinding Nemo? Of course not.)

Anyway, Henry Selick, director of the instant classic The Nightmare Before Christmas was hoping for some of that same magic and for the most part, he succeeded. If you haven’t read the novel and you go see the film, you’re in for a real treat. You’ll be awed and wowed at every turn. If you’re a fan of the book, you might bristle a little.

 I tried valiantly, oh how I tried, to subordinate my faithful-to-the-novel partisanship, but found where Selick changed things, he did so in a way that weakened the overall story. This is no more egregiously done than in the film’s climax. Where the novel had our heroine solving her own problems with her smarts and cunning, Selick instead goes for teamwork and brute strength.

Neil Gaiman, author of the brilliant novel the film is based on, is apparently a good egg, because he’s been a real trooper in being involved in the film’s marketing, doing little interview vids and championing Selick’s film and his choices. One could take the cynical view that a successful film means more book sales, or one could take the charitable view and say Gaiman understands that adaptations pick and choose and sometimes invent because the screen has different demands.

Where Selick’s film excels is just in those cinematic and filmic moments. Coraline is gorgeous. Absolutely amazing and wonderful to behold. The stop motion style of his previous film has progressed to fantastic levels. Between he and Nick Park there are no big name practitioners of the art who so consistently hit the mark with something that is lifelike yet completely and utterly cartoonishly enjoyable and bizarre. Coraline is simply a treat to behold. Moments such as the transformation of the villainous Other Mother from soft and round cutesy June Cleaver (with button eyes) to skeletal spider woman are eye candy at its cartoon finest, beautifully creepy in that fun way where you’re scared but excited too.

Selick seems to spend much more time in the Other Mother’s world than the real world – or maybe it only felt that way. I’m sure the temptations of creating a visually dynamic, colorful world with pianos with great mechanical arms, preying mantis tractors, flower gardens in the form of pictures, and acrobats made entirely of rats, far and away beats the quotidian fun of a shower filled with cockroaches or a gloppety recipe of veggies.

Selick mixes up his media in the scene where Coraline meets the souls of the three children caught and feasted upon by the Other Mother in earlier years, giving us pale blue transparencies of children, gliding around the frame.  It is one of the film’s more unsettling scenes, Coraline shoved behind a mirror into a small room behind it where the previous victims remain. Seeing this scene online prior to the rest of the film was one of the things that reassured me the movie was in good hands, despite the cutesier elements of the Other Mother’s seductions.

Who?  you’re probably asking, as in my nerd enthusiasms I haven’t even properly set up the story. Coraline Jones and her two writer parents move into the ground floor apartment of a house split into three. Above them in the attic apartment, lives Mr. Bobinsky, the “Amazing” Bobinsky, acrobat and trainer of a mouse circus. Below them in the basement apartment live two ex-vaudevillians from the more burlesque side of things, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (ably and cattily delivered by Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French). An only child, Coraline is a lonely child, as her parents are busy putting the final touches on a gardening catalog they’ve been writing for what seems an eternity.

On a sort of scavenger hunt through the house, Coraline finds a small door, wall-papered over. To satisfy her daughter’s curiosity, Coraline’s mother unlocks the door only to show her daughter the bricked over wall behind it. Later that night, the door opens to reveal a long gauzy tunnel, leading to another world. At first it looks the same as Coraline’s real world, but then our heroine meets the Other Mother, a seemingly pleasant, nurturing woman with buttons for eyes. The entire world is here recreated by the Other Mother, but made better, more fun, a seductive spider’s web woven with sinister intent. The garden is picked out in flowers that make up an image of Coraline’s face, her Other Father plays the piano and sings songs, both parents actually pay attention to their daughter, food is delivered by trains and spinning chandeliers, and all the toys talk to Coraline. After a few nights visiting this fun world, Coraline is given the choice of living there forever, if only she’ll let the Other Mother sew buttons over her eyes.

Her rebellion on this point angers the Other Mother and we see the world begin to turn, become darker, in some cases to dissolve and warp. Here, Selick’s darker imagination comes to life and the film goes from unsettling to downright scary. The Littlest Critic beside me was enraptured, though she asked too about the changes to the story and the new character of Wybie, a neighbor and grandson of Coraline’s landlady. Most importantly, she worried that her nightmare chapter, what takes place in the cellar, would be too frightening – not for her, mind you, but her stuffed animal, a ginger cat named Milo. Alas, the cellar chapter did not make it in original form into the film and cats and children everywhere were relieved.

Despite the changes Selick made to the book, Coraline is incredible. It’s a thing of rare beauty, a kid’s movie that lacks saccharine and easy moralizing or lame fart jokes in a cheap attempt to get laughs (and I say this as something of a fart joke aficionado). It’s one of those films that can be equally enjoyed by parents or adults without the resort to two tiers of jokes, half of the material going over half of the audience’s heads.  Much like Selick’s previous efforts, I’m quite certain thatCoraline will enter into the pantheon of classics, a tale of childhood that is as much about finding the strength (and the kindness) inside yourself as it is about finding satisfaction in your family, your friends, their foibles and all. 

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