Movie Review: Coraline
The Charlotte Observer
Henry Selick is one of Hollywood's sadly forgotten men. People don't remember that he directed “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” especially now that Tim Burton's name has been shoved into the title. (Burton produced, but Selick directed.) They don't remember the grimly funny “James and the Giant Peach” at all.
So I have no hope “Coraline” will cement his name in viewer's minds, though I don't expect to see a more visually imaginative movie this year. Selick's fantastical adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novel will be too dazzlingly rich for many; it'll be like “caviare to the general,” as Hamlet said of a complex play enacted for a public with lazy minds.
The melancholy Dane is one of many cultural references in this animated crazy quilt: Two female acrobats quote his “What a piece of work is a man” speech while flying on trapezes to the music of Offenbach's famous can-can. And this scene is but one wild wave on the vast ocean of Selick's imagination.
The writer-director begins calmly enough, with middle-schooler Coraline (Dakota Fanning) moving from Michigan to Oregon. She and her parents, who write gardening catalogues, take an apartment in an old house shared with the big-bellied proprietor of a mouse circus (Ian McShane, using an outrageous Slavic accent) and dotty, retired British vaudevillians (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French).
Coraline's parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) pay her a little less attention than they might, and she gets into good-natured mischief. She discovers a passageway to a supposedly closed-off section of the house; when she crawls through, she finds creatures who look exactly like her parents, except for the buttons in place of their eyes.
This Other Mother and Father live in a world filled with cakes and circuses and player pianos and self-growing flowers, one without school cares or financial difficulties. This seems like a dream – and Coraline wakes up in her old bed after every visit to the Others – yet it becomes a nightmare when the Button Mom tries to lay claim to Coraline forever. The price of happiness, it seems, is giving up your eyes – which stand in for the soul here – and, of course, your unnecessary human relatives.
The story borrows liberally from other fantasy sources, including “Spirited Away” (a girl rescues human parents who have been transformed) and “The Matrix” (deluded happiness comes from abandoning not only responsibilities but freedom of choice).
Most animated films are parables about growing up, often in the absence of one or both parents; this one goes a dark step further to suggest that the woman who gave you life may take it away by smothering you to meet her insatiable needs. (If you see this in 3-D, most of those effects come in the Other Mother's world, and they'll be disturbing for young children.)
The film has fine aural elements, from the voice performances (including Keith David's as a wise, supercilious cat) to the Danny Elfman-esque music by Bruno Coulais. But Selick never forgets that these are moving
pictures. I suspect you could turn the sound off and still be terrified, amused and delighted.