Sunday, February 8, 2009

Review - Coraline

I'm skipping over the continuation of the Nebula reviews for a week because this weekend the long awaited film adaptation of Coraline has finally been released!

Okay, long awaited by me. I'm not really sure how many other people were really waiting for it. The absolutely terrible promotional campaign seems designed to try to drive viewers away (would it really be that much trouble to explain the basic concept in the commercials?). I don't go out to movies very much any more since I can buy the DVD and watch it in comfort for half the price of a movie ticket but of the last four movies I've gone to see three I went to specifically because Neil Gaiman was somehow involved.

So as someone who apparently consumes 75% Neil Gaiman content at the theaters I was inclined to enjoy Coraline. And I did. Oh sure there were some aspects to the adaptation I wasn't thrilled by but there was a lot tweaked for the visual style and pacing that I think worked for the film so that balanced out. I've never been one to hold to the idea that an adaptation must be identical to the original; it's more important to me that the style and themes of the original are represented in a new medium and there I think Coraline is a success.

If you need a plot summary, Coraline is a young girl who has just moved to a remote country house turned apartments. Once there she's bored and ignored by her parents. She also has to deal with zany neighbors. However there is a tiny locked door in the living room that when opened reveals a passage to a house where everything is better. It's a garden of delights on the other side of the passage governed by her "Other Mother" who wants to make Coraline happy in the new world where everyone has buttons for eyes. Naturally that door was locked for good reason.

When I reviewed the novella I mentioned that I was disappointed because it was standard Gaiman fare. It was like Gaiman's greatest hits redone for children; there's nothing wrong with that but as someone who had seen and read a lot of Gaiman's works it just wasn't as interesting as some of his others. In this case I think it's a blessing that there's very little that's been put on the movie screen quite like Coraline. The same general plot (albiet a bit more tidy for the sake of explaining everything) stands out a bit more there.

What everyone will notice about the movie Coraline is the perfect visual styling. The normal world is a washed out grey while the world beyond the door is vibrant and glowing. The Other Mother's "acting" carries a menace that isn't there with the Coraline's real mother despite the two of them having near identical puppets. The subtle changes in tone as the pleasures of the fairy realm turn against Coraline will creep anyone out. And there's one clever peice of design toward the end that was so clever and disturbing that I gasped (you can't miss it; it occupies a good portion of the screen for several extended shots).

The thing that impressed me the most in Coraline is something that I'm not sure everyone would pick up on: the camera is amazingly dynamic. Look at earlier stop motion efforts and you'll see that the camera is pretty lifeless. You'll get occasional pans and zooms but for the most part it just sits there. Cameras just couldn't get close to and move through the sets very well. I'm not a fan of digital photography in films but those smaller cameras allowed director Henry Selick to swoop and curve and dance in and out of the scenes unlike anything ever done before in stop motion animation. He never takes it to the degree that some CGI animators do but he manages to make the whole thing look more lively this way.

Speaking of the camera work I was also intrigued by the use of 3D effects in this film. Selick for the most part takes the opposite approach of most filmmakers working in 3D: he uses it to give the screen depth rather than emerging from it. So instead of having someone thrust toward the camera every few minutes he frames his shot so that the viewer gets more a perspective of remoteness. Unfortunately the 3D effects also make some of his impressive camera work more blurry than it needs to be but I found it a refreshing approach to the concept.

I can't end this review without complimenting the cast. The lack of stunt casting for the characters was a welcome change for me; in my experience selecting people for how well known they are rather than how well they can voice act is more distracting than entertaining (see just about anything by Dreamworks). The entire cast did a natural job with their characters that helped bring them to life. The stand out has to be Teri Hatcher who has to be both an exasperated mother and and the temptingly sinister Other Mother.

So Coraline really was a good movie. I suspect that it will be ignored in the theaters as most animation that isn't completely watered down and safe for five year olds is. And yet The Nightmare Before Christmas was a box office flop on first release that immediately turned into a cult classic. I foresee the same fate for Coraline.