February 1, 2009

Written by Silas Lesnick

Amidst a flurry of the traditional Valentine’s Day Hollywood rom-coms, February contains such counter-programing as “Coraline” and “Friday the 13th”. Of these two films, I can say with some certainty that one features some of the most genuinely terrifying sequences to hit the big screen in years, while the other is about a killer wearing a hockey mask.

But make no mistake about the horror aspect, “Coraline” is still a children’s movie through and through. Director Henry Selick and original author Neil Gaiman know their audience and know it well and, together, have crafted — and I must stress the word “crafted” — absolute magic from beginning to end.

Originally published in 2002, Gaiman’s young adult novel is something akin to “Alice in Wonderland” by way of Edward Gorey or Edgar Allen Poe. It tells the tale of Coraline, a young girl who, one day, discovers a small door in her new home that leads to another world not unlike her own. There, she finds her Other Mother and Other Father; seemingly superior versions with buttons instead of eyes that, at first, seem too good to be true and, as they try to stop her from ever leaving, Coraline learns really are.

In bringing Gaiman to the big screen, Selick has nipped and tucked the original prose in a way that makes it all his own and, strangely, makes the story feel all the more timeless for it. And timelessness, really, is sort of what the wonder of Selick’s “Coraline” is all about.

In the same way that his own “The Nightmare Before Christmas” has both not aged a day and still remains a classic, Selick’s touches to “Coraline” are so gently applied that they risk being underestimated.

The voice cast blends untraceably into the roles. Never is Dakota Fanning anything more or less than Coraline herself while the bizarrely matched on-screen couple of John Hodgman and Terri Hatcher as Coraline’s parents just plain works, capturing every last nuance of everyone’s familiar mom and dad (and the perhaps less-familiar “Other”

mom and “Other” dad).

Mostly, though, “Coraline” just asks that the audience drop its mouth in awe and, kindly, reminds them to keep it dropped for the duration of the film. The stop-motion animation is exquisite, and somehow just feels more real than recent overly fluid (and Selick-less) works like Tim Burton’s “The Corpse Bride”.

Though “Coraline” would be every bit as delightful without the cutting-edge 3D aspect, it should be noted that the 3D is, in itself, rather wonderful and actually, at times, constrained to the point that it actually plays as a narrative device rather than a gimmick. When Coraline crawls through the door into the other world, think color in “The Wizard of Oz” or, paraphrasing Al Jolson’s iconic sync-sound line in “The Jazz Singer”, that “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

At the risk of gushing, a few quibbles: The third act does feel a bit off with a somewhat unbalanced “ticking clock” device that throws the pacing somewhat out of whack. Coraline is assigned a climax-building quest that, at the worst of times, features the off-line of dialogue that winds up reminding the viewer of a cut-scene from a video game.

Having said that, “Coraline” is still a certifiable masterpiece through and through. For a film with a powerful moral about the nature of love, there’s not a trace of over-sentimentality. For a story aimed at children, it never talks down to its audience. While staying hip, modern and fun, “Coraline” eschews cynicism. For a technique as old as cinema itself, the film’s animation is nothing short of magic. It’s scary and creepy but with so, so much heart that brings, rushing back, all the fear and wonder of hearing fairy tales as a kid.

This is not a story your father told you, but it may be very well be one you’ll one day be sharing with your grandchildren.

“Coraline” opens Friday, February 6th.

Want more “Coraline”? Then click here for some movie clips.

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