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Friday, Feb. 19, 2010
Tripping into a magic wonderland
One of the things everyone seems to enjoy about "Avatar" — both the people who love the film, and those who are lukewarm about it — is that sense of really being able to sink into that glistening, glowing world of Pandora. James Cameron's film is perhaps the first to so exploit 3-D's potential for immersion, but it surely won't be the last.
Just take a look at "Coraline," the new stop-motion animated feature by Henry Selick, the demented genius who brought us "The Nightmare Before Christmas" oh-so-many moons ago. The film begins with little Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning with a refreshing lack of chirpy cuteness) stuck inside the dreary old house her parents have just moved into. Ignored by her mom and dad — who are chained to their computers — and with nothing to do on one dull rainy day, she discovers a small door, behind which is a bricked up passageway that only opens up in the deep of night.
Once "Coraline" steps though that door, the film literally explodes with color, vibrancy, and most of all, depth. It's hard to imagine now how audiences back in 1939 felt when, watching "The Wizard of Oz," the black-and-white screen that was all they'd ever known suddenly burst into Technicolor splendor. Yet "Coraline" achieves a similar feat of wonder: the screenworld both opens up and recedes back. You can get lost in its nooks and crannies, and — unlike the fuzzy backgrounds of CG — Selick's use of actual miniature sets and puppets gives this world a physicality and texture that holds up however far you choose to gaze.
"Coraline" is based on a novella of the same name by Neil Gaiman, whose track record in films gives cause for alarm ("Stardust," "Beowulf"), but it turns out he's met his perfect match in Selick, who brings his trademark cartoon-Gothic and spooky-cute aesthetic to Gaiman's dark fairy-tale material. It's a film that's as silly as it's beautiful, as dreamy as it is disturbing. (Parents be warned: "Coraline" may definitely be a bit frightening for very young viewers.)
The story is a close cousin to "Alice In Wonderland" or Studio Ghibli's "Spirited Away," with its young heroine stepping into a fantasy world that's both exhilarating and terrifying. In Coraline's case, she finds the other world to be exactly like the real world, but better and more exciting in every way. As opposed to her real mother, who's always too absorbed in work to have time for her, Coraline's "Other Mother" is better-looking, fun, and caters to the girl's every whim. The only thing that seems wrong is that everyone has doll-like buttons for eyes.
As in all fairy tales, though, when something's too good to be true, it probably is. There's a catch, and it's a killer. Coraline must rely on her own wits to escape the clutches of her Other Mother, with a little help from her new friend Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.) and his mysterious black cat (Keith David).
Selick manages some amazing set pieces here — a circus of acrobatic mice, a room full of batlike flying terriers, the Other Mother's wiry, spiderlike hand that pursues Coraline back into the real world — but he also stocks the film full of wonderful little details, like the way in which Coraline's dad has a long giraffelike neck (presumably from craning into the computer screen all the time).
A big contribution also comes from illustrator Tadahiro Uesugi, who did the concept art that was the basis for the film's look. Revered for his retro 1950s/'60s French-inspired style and elegant fashion work, Uesugi brought a unique (and very Tokyo) sensibility that pushes Selick's style into new realms. Just check the scene where Coraline flees from the Other Mother's house and enters a forest that gradually morphs into skinny, stylized trees and then blank white mist; pure magic.
"Coraline" is clearly the most ambitious animated film to come down the pike in a long time, and this is about as close to perfection as you can get. Selick knows his unsettling East European animation as well as his Disney, and he manages to fuse both styles here with astounding success. This is a must-see on the big screen.