‘Coraline’ a unique adventure

By David Orlikoff

Just as the Lumiere Brothers perceived their own work and all films as little more than an interesting trick on the eyes-and certainly not as art-the first animations were largely gimmicks. Other films that focused more on the drawings themselves featured the animator as a character, causing the audience to focus on the novelty of the process and not the animated world.

Once the public grew acclimated to the concept of viewing things on film that could never exist in reality, Disney and others brought about a contiguous world. The public began to see through animated shorts and features to the substance and story, forgetting the novelty. Modern animators like Henry Selick, director of the new film Coraline, are tasked with ensuring that animation is regarded as art and not merely a child’s amusement.

It is easy for people to see the difference between “The Teletubbies” and Citizen Kane, but harder for them to separate Saturday morning cartoons from a Miyaziki epic. Selick found one way to sidestep this issue and trick people into viewing his films independently. Though his filmography is extensive in covering many areas of animation and mixed media, since directing The Nightmare Before Christmas, Selick has focused on stop-motion animation.

Coraline is the story of a young girl, voiced by Dakota Fanning, who feels frustrated and neglected, not only by her parents, but by her surroundings. Her family recently moved to an apartment in a sectioned-off old house outside town. Unluckily for her, the only kid her age is a borderline stalker named Wybie. Things start to look up for Coraline when she discovers a portal in her living room to the “other world,” a place like this world, but where everything is a thousand times better. At least it all seems that way until Coraline uncovers the truth behind the sugar coated facade.

With this medium, the style is at least as important as the story. One example is the garden in the other world. It is a fantastical, mesmerizing ballet of colorful, lively horticulture with creative uses. While Coraline plays here, Other Father acts as a tour guide, riding around on a giant mechanical mantis. This scene has no less magic and whimsy than some from the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, or The Wizard of Oz. By not only the scope of its production, but the nature of stop-motion as a medium where the audience understands these things on screen to physically exist in some way, the experience is incredible.

Similarly, where each strand of hair is individually placed and animators have tens of thousands of possible facial expressions to choose from, the voice actors are doing less than half the work. Lower in percentage, perhaps, but the quality remains.

Each character is well-casted, adding another layer of richness to the film. Teri Hatcher voices both the Mother and the Other Mother, and masters her own brand of painfully aggressive sweetness. John Hodgman, the PC guy from the Apple commercials, voices both fathers and performs the film’s only song written by the indie group They Might Be Giants. Keith David is no less powerful in his role as a black cat than he was narrating Princess Mononoke.

With the set limited to two versions of the same house and surrounding area and most of the action taking place within a couple days, is, in some ways, the most modest of Selick’s three stop-motion features. One important addition to this film is the advent of 3-D. No, this is not strictly new, but neither is the Real D technology using polarization at all comparable to the red/green cereal box-glasses of yesteryear. Selick took pains to restrict himself and his team from overusing the effect. In most cases, the 3-D allows for greater depth into the frame and only rarely and effectively brings items out toward the audience. The 3-D uniquely contributes to the experience, giving the feel of being on set without taking anything away. The glasses are even emo-chic.

Coraline may be wrapped tighter, but it is bursting at the seams. The only real complaint is that it is predictable, but as a fairy tale, that goes without saying. While lacking musical numbers, there shouldn’t be anyone who enjoyed Nightmare who wouldn’t enjoy this.