Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Catching up with "Coraline"

We actually got out to see "Coraline" a while back, but I've been up to my ears in Oscar coverage, so it got pushed back. Here's a review.

I'm a big fan of stop-motion animation whiz Henry Selick. Everyone knows about "The Nightmare Before Christmas," his project with Tim Burton, but if you haven't seen "James and the Giant Peach," got out and rent it right away.

Stop-motion is brutal work, the most time- and detail-intensive type of filmmaking there is. Each figure must be manually altered to create the illusion of motion 24 times. If it's even slightly off, the action will seem jumpy. If they accidentally press too hard, their fingerprints can show up on the clothes or fur of the character. And that's to produce one second of film.

It's for that reason that Hollywood doesn't crank out stop-motion movies every year. It's been eight years since Selick's last feature film, the ill-fated "Monkeybone" that combined live action and stop-motion. My understanding is that "Coraline" does include some computer-generated imagery, but most of the action is stop-motion. The movie is being shown in 3-D in select theaters (alas, we had to suffice with 2-D).

It's a really rather creepy tale, based on the Neil Gaiman book. Coraline (voiced wonderfully by Dakota Fanning) is an independent girl of about 10 who's not at all happy about moving with her parents into the Pink Palace, a degrading house shared by strange tenants. Her parents are both journalists and have no time to spare for her, despite being around the house constantly. Her only potential companionship is Wybie, a talkative neighborhood boy who seems more interested in tormenting Coraline.

Then she discovers a hidden door behind the wallpaper that is a portal to the "Other" world. Here there is a parallel copy of her own world, except everything is better. The nasty bugs in her bedroom become beautiful flying critters that bid her good morning. Her mother and father turn into doting versions who make her wonderful clothes and serve scrumptious meals. Wybie even offers companionship without any of that annoying talking. Even her neighbors transform from elderly has-beens to vibrant showbiz performers who stage nightly entertainment, just for her.

One catch: Her Other Mother and Other Father, along with everyone else in this world, wears black buttons for eyes.

Soon it becomes apparent that there's a more nefarious force at work, and it's up to Coraline with the help of a mysterious cat who can only talk in the Other world to put things to right.

The animation is, of course, absolutely glorious. The scene where the Other Father creates a garden for Coraline right before her eyes is pure magic.

I was surprised by how haunting some of the images are. This movie is rated PG, and I would not recommend it for the smallest children.

Mostly, though, "Coraline" is a stunning thing to look at, and a vibrant and original story brought to life by painstaking animators. With the success of "Coraline," here's hoping the legacy of stop-motion animation will not draw to a close.

Three stars out of four

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