I don't know exactly what I expected from Henry Selick's Coraline. I sort of went in with a blank slate, hoping for something dark and as visually and emotionally rich as Selick's The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. Coraline is dark, probably too dark for very young children, and visually rich, but emotionally, I found the film a bit incomplete. (I have not read the Neil Gaiman book upon which it is based.)
There are wonders to be found, and they are truly wonderful, especially in 3-D (I viewed the film in standard format first, then in 3-D). Of these wonders, there is no question that the mouse circus is the greatest and foremost, a really--okay, amazing--sequence.
The film tells the story of a girl, Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning), newly moved to Oregon with her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), who are writers/marketers for a gardening catalog company. They live in a 150-year-old house they share with upstairs and downstairs neighbors, a weirdo-acrobat named Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane) upstairs, and weirdo-"actresses"--or bawdy vaudevillians--Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French) downstairs. Another neighbor, Wybie Lovat (Robert Bailey, Jr.) lives nearby with their landlord, his grandmother, and brings Coraline a strange doll which resembles her and begins her adventure.
Like Pinocchio, Coraline is about a kid who just doesn't know how lucky it can be to have a boring life with loving, if sometimes inattentive parent(s). She creeps around an old well, longs to work in the garden, even in the rain, makes lists of things she notices about the house, visits the neighbors, and on the whole wishes her life could just be more exciting and fulfilling.
When she finds a painted-over door in the living room which leads to a bricked-over dead end, she is about to discover more adventure, and danger, than she can use. It doesn't stay bricked-over for long, but leads her, first in dreams, and later while she is awake, into a magical but off-kilter world in which her "Other" mother and father and otherworldly counterparts of her real world conspire to bring to life all of her longings for order, stability, attention, wonder and adventure. The only character who is himself, though a bit different, is Wybie's wild black cat (perfectly voiced by Keith David), who peels back some of the layers to show Coraline what she's really getting into.
Giving in to this seduction comes with a price, as Coraline discovers when she finds herself trapped there as it starts to come apart at the seams and reveal its darker, imprisoning character. And yet, the seduction is the most visually rewarding part of the film for the viewer. Here, the fairytale rule of three is followed faithfully, as Coraline is shown magical tableaus which are anything but boring. This is where we find Bobinsky's mouse circus sequence which so stands out, a magical garden made especially for her by her "Other" father (who turns out to be weak more than evil), and a Spink & Forcible stage show with an audience of Coraline, the creepy alternate Wybie, and hundreds of Scottie dogs.
The film loses a lot of momentum from here, becoming almost a cookie-cutter quest/fight for survival and rescue which probably could have been penned by any random child in the audience. This is less wonderful. Some of the visuals in this part are still jaw-dropping, and work especially well in 3-D, where more angles are created and more subtleties come to life than in plain old 2-D. But somehow the symbols which repeat and build here seem out of place. They don't quite build upon themselves like they should, or relate to Coraline's world and her fears and dreams very meaningfully. They're fun to look at, but not quite all there. Some ghosts who show up are very interesting at first, but the interest peters out. Perhaps if I had read Gaiman's book, I would have filled in with my knowledge of that to make more of it, but as it is, I have to echo Coraline's complaint about her ordinary life--that it's kind of boring. It goes on a bit too long, as well, and leads to a pretty pat, flat ending.
Leaving that aside, any kind of animation fan or Henry Selick fan will enjoy seeing the virtuoso technique and flights of fancy on display here, even if they don't quite make a symbolically complete-feeling picture overall. The combination of stop-motion, digital animation and 3-D is nothing short of stunning. The voice actors are all good, especially Keith David as the black cat, a winning character who should probably star some kind of sequel of his own. There's plenty of great, atmospheric music.
And that mouse circus is really is amazing. The black cat is satisfyingly charming and eldritch. I've seen the film twice, and will probably see it again in 3-D, because even despite its story deficiencies, it's lots of fun to see. I would not recommend it for children under 10 or so.
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