reviewed by Marc Glassman
Coraline. Henry Selick, director and script based on the novel by Neil Gaiman. An animation feature film voiced by Dakota Fanning (Coraline), Teri Hatcher (Coraline’s mother & the other Mother), John Hodgman (Coraline’s father & the other Father), Dawn French (Miss Forcible), Jennifer Saunders (Miss Spink), Robert Bailey, Jr. (Wybie Lovat), Ian McShane (Mr. Bobinsky), Keith David (The Cat).
A fractured fairy tale that will enthrall adults and kids who don’t scare easily, Coraline is bound to score well with audiences and critics. Animation writer-director Henry Selick, the real “wizard” who pulled the strings on Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, will finally get his due with Coraline. Selick is an exceptional talent, who can draw and work in stop motion and 3D. With a background that includes studying at the famed Cal Arts film school, apprenticing at Disney, and making the award winning shorts Moongirl and Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions, he’s been poised to create an eye-popping masterpiece for years.
And now here it is.
Selick’s technique is well suited to the black comic vision of Neil Gaiman, a cult hero in graphic novel and speculative fiction circles. Gaiman’s imaginative turf crisscrosses horror, comedy, eerie suspense, surrealism and fantasy. His comic books starring The Sandman are classics; so is the sci-fi novel American Gods.
His book Coraline morphed into an outstanding graphic novel before becoming a film. The story has a Lewis Carroll meets Edward Gorey quality to it. Like Alice, Coraline meets a group of oddballs who take to her instantly: the quirky retired actresses Miss Forcible and Miss Spink (brilliantly played by the comedy duo French and Saunders), Mr. Bobinsky, a huge Russian who changes into a ringmaster of a circus in his “other” persona; and a mysterious black cat that can speak in one dimension but not the Other.
What’s this about “other” worlds? Seems that, again like Alice, Coraline can move between dimensions. But while Wonderland had its share of very peculiar moments, the scene taking place down a corridor in Coraline’s new house is truly unsettling. When the curious young woman opens that door, she finds herself with another mother and father, who are far nicer and more receptive to her than her real mum and dad. There’s a problem though; they have buttons for eyes and are intent on giving Coraline a surgical procedure to make her see things the way they do.
Selick renders this spooky world spectacularly well. Coraline’s “other” Dad is a wonderful gardener — something the real one is not — and the beautifully landscaped terrain is an homage to the young lady. Mr. Bobinsky’s circus is exciting and gorgeous to watch — but the performers are, quite literally, rats. And Miss Forcible and Miss Spink are still actresses — but they’re also, strangely, quite accomplished acrobats.
It’s enough to make a girl think. But eyes are eyes. So, um, the eyes have it. Except the “other” mother is hardly a buttoned-down loser. When Coraline opts to return to her boring Mom and Dad, her “other” mum goes ballistic. And, it turns out, not for the first time. Coraline finds sad, abandoned children, now dead but without souls because their “windows,” the eyes, have been taken from them.
What’s an intrepid girl to do?
Selick and Gaiman give her resources and friends and she’s asked to rise to the occasion. Does she do it? That would be telling — not allowed in the reviewers lexicon — but it’s safe to say that Coraline is deeply upsetting but not apocalyptic.
And the film is beautiful to see: a strong argument for not exchanging your eyes for buttons. Especially if you can view it in 3D — which is the glorious format intended for this stylish and ambitious feature.