Movie Review: Coraline - A Treat for Kids and Adults Alike

New one-sheet poster from Henry Selic's 3D stop-motion animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman

Spoiler Warning - Slight Spoilers for Coraline Ahead

What do you get when you combine two original talents like Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick? As Coraline (opneing Friday in the US) readily proves, one of the best feature films of the year, if not the decade… animated or not.

Comic book, science fiction, fantasy/horror fans are long familiar with Gaiman. His fiction has earned an incredible array of awards, the latest being this year’s Newberry Award for his novel, The Graveyard Book. His name is also attached to a number of critically acclaimed films; including Princess Mononoke, A Short Film About John Bolton, MirrorMask, Beowulf and Stardust in one way or another. That list is about to double as a number of other Gaiman-penned stories are in various stages of pre-production.

Coraline will put Selick the title of stop motion master alongside legends like Clokey, Pal, Trnka and Svankmajer. This movie should cement it thanks to past efforts such as Nightmare Before Christmas, James & the Giant Peach and the underappreciated Monkeybone (especially if you ever see the director’s cut).

Most important, with Coraline both Gaiman and Selick realize two things:

The first is kids love a good scare. They’re a lot smarter than what many of the people producing “kids” entertainment provide them. They want more than Michael Myers or Freddie Krueger donning pink bunny suits as they hack and slash their way through a bevy of half-naked teenagers. Kids don’t need excessive gore, but likewise, they don’t need traditional, pedestrian plots where even the youngest viewer knows the outcome within the first five minutes. They want to be surprised, not shocked. They appreciate deft, high artistic values in their own way.

The second thing Gaiman and Selick realize is that what makes a book good is not necessarily the same thing as what makes a movie good. As many know, the novella the movie is based on is a particularly spooky yet meditative story of a girl who fancies herself an “explorer.” Her only contact, besides her parents, are a stray cat and three somewhat wonky retired entertainers. She then discovers another world, one that’s hidden inside her new home. Young Coraline then ends up exploring a world that seems at first to be full of wonderful surprises, but is equally populated with some truly dangerous and insidious traps.

Selick and Gaiman address both in Coraline, from opening shot to final credit.

As a book, Coraline is a darn good read. As those familiar with the novella will quickly realize when seeing the film, Gaiman and Selick felt a literal rendition would not make a good movie. As a result, they put in some changes - some subtle, some very overt - to the story. These range from Coraline’s first introduction to this other world to the introduction of an important character not in the book at all. While literalists might feel offended, it should be understood that many were done not only with Gaiman’s approval, but with him actually having a helping hand in these alterations and creations. They are also integrated to such a degree that literalists may not even notice them, while those not familiar at all with the book will not even realize anything was ever changed.

Selick and Gaiman also innovate in more subtle ways. The cast consists of one highly experienced voice actor, Keith David, as the Cat; from there you have Dakota Fanning in the title role, Teri Hatcher in four different roles (including both mothers), Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders as Forcible and Spinks (respectively). A seriously inspired bit of casting was John Hodgman as the Father/Other Father. Likewise, if Ian McShane, who’s past voice work includes Kung Fu Panda (Tai Lung) and Shrek III (Captain Hook), decides to stick to voice acting, he would not get any complaints. Rounding out the cast is Robert Bailey, Jr. as the new character Wybie.

The blend of various voices is remarkably fresh on the ear. Fanning, in particular, sounds like a rather too-smart pre-teen should. Hatcher and Hodgman also sound exceptionally believable as her overworked parents, at least in our dimension.

Where Selick really stands on his own though is in the visuals. He took Gaiman’s generally gloomy and mysterious atmosphere and replaced it with an exceptionally vivid color palette. He has managed to blend the original traditional animation process, stop motion, and incorporate a number of 3-D effects in a highly effective manner. Puppets haven’t moved this smoothly since George Pal. Scenes such as the other Forcible and Spink’s theater or the other Mr. Bobo’s mouse circus would make even the most intricate Rankin-Bass scene look like something produced by Moral Orel. Coraline’s final confrontation with her other mother, where Selick totally redesigns Coraline’s other mother, will stun you with its inventiveness. Even the opening credit sequence, which can’t be described without spoiling the movie too much, will immediate draw one in with its visuals and images.

In all, if this film doesn’t go a long, long way towards being a hit, then the American public should replace their eyes with buttons. In all, Coraline is a visual feast with an incredibly good, scary story at its core.

Then again, that’s what one should expect when two talents such as Gaiman and Selick collaborate. Let’s hope they do it again.

Related:

Neil Gaiman's Favorite Coraline Trailer

9 to Watch in 2009: The Movies

SDCC '08: More on Gaiman/Batman with DiDio

Newsarama Note: Whoops - The original article stated that Hodgman was a mmeber of They Might Be Giants. He's not.

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