Thursday, December 24, 2009

Coraline (Focus Features/Universal, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our movie last night, Coraline, was a 2009 release (gee, two recent movies in a row!) from Universal’s art-house division, Focus Features (I call them “Out-of-Focus Features” since their logo is the word “FOCUS” in all caps, but with the “O” blurry while the rest of the letters are clear). Directed by Henry Selick, who also made The Nightmare Before Christmas (though Tim Burton got most of the credit since he’d written the story and done much of the preliminary design work), Coraline is based on a children’s book by Neil Gaiman that as a story is sort of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz meet Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) — that’s her name, though of course (and much to her irritation) most of the people in the movie insist on calling her “Caroline” — is the daughter of Charlie Jones (John Hodgman) and his wife Mel (Teri Hatcher). He’s a writer, which explains why he’s on his computer virtually all day (in a desperate attempt to get his attention, Coraline flips the fuse switch and cuts off power to his computer, thereby erasing much of his day’s work), though he also cooks all the family’s meals since his wife couldn’t be less interested in that sort of thing. They live in a place called the Pink Palace, even though it isn’t pink and isn’t a palace; instead it’s a typical movie haunted house, Victorian in style and with a lot of moldering old rooms and a general aura of the sinister. Coraline ventures outside and meets a rangy outdoor cat and a boy named Wybie (Robert Bailey, Jr.) who’s so compulsively talkative he bores and disgusts Coraline at first sight. (“Wybie” — a character Selick added to his script for the film — is short for “Wyborn,” and Coraline irresistibly puns on his name, “Whywereyouborn?”).

Much of the first half-hour of this 101-minute film is scene-setting and characterization, but eventually the plot kicks into high gear when Coraline discovers a secret child-sized doorway in a part of the house. It’s been wallpapered over on her side and bricked over on the other, but she cuts through the wallpaper, the bricks magically vanish and she goes through the doorway and finds herself in … the same house, with the same mom and dad. Only they’re totally different; mom is a great cook, dad is a musician instead of a writer (with two formidable extension arms so he can play the piano while he’s doing other things with his hands) and they’re both considerably warmer to her than her real parents back on the other side of the door. On this side of the door the cat can talk and Wybie can’t — Coraline is pleased with both those developments — and it’s only after a while of experiencing her dream of what she wishes her family and their lives together were like that Coraline realizes the whole setup is there for some sinister purpose and she is its target. Eventually she comes to grip with the fact that the “Other Father” and “Other Mother” she’s found so much more congenial than her real ones are alien beings of some sort that are there to eat her. At least I think that’s what happened; as with a lot of other fantasies, the dramaturgy gets muddled towards the end as we’re not sure what laws of physics and nature the author is declaring inoperative for the sake of his story and which ones he’s clinging to.

Coraline is quite a charming movie, convincingly animated (and while some of it is computer-generated much of it was done with puppets and old-fashioned stop-motion figures) and effectively staged, and the 3-D effects are fun and add a lot of appeal even though this isn’t a virtuoso display of the in-depth process the way some 3-D films have been. I like this almost literally “skeletal” form of animation that seems unique to Burton and Selick (I can’t remember any other director who’s tried it!); the use of puppets and models to enact the characters enables Selick to bring them to the screen without the heavy literalness of a version in live-action with computer-generated effects shots, and the film maintains a good balance, getting us into Coraline’s point of view while not allowing her to take over the whole movie. It does tend to sag in the second half, though, mainly because of another problem with fantasy as a genre: once you’ve set aside the normal laws of nature and thereby set up your story so anything can happen, the tendency is almost irresistlble to make anything happen — even if it breaks the rules of your fantasy as well as physical reality. Still, Coraline is a nice movie, well balanced between adult appeal and attraction to kids (it’s the sort of movie you can take your family to and no one will be bored — the kids will like the cool effects shots and root for Coraline the character, while the grownups will enjoy the bits of darkness and the inventiveness of the gags.