Saturday, February 7, 2009
It’s been too long since Henry Selick made a demented stop-motion animated film nominally geared towards children. His previous two efforts, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach” remain some of the best children’s films of the 90s, and neither of them should ever be shown to kids. After a decade’s worth of more adult fare (or fare aimed at adults, anyway), he’s back with an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s horror novella “Coraline.” For children. God I couldn’t wait.
We meet Coraline as she moves into an apartment complex called the Pink Palace out in the middle of nowhere. Her parents are putting the finishing touches on a garden catalog and have no time for their daughter, who wiles away the time by exploring the countryside. But this is no ordinary movie girl: Coraline is curt, whiny, and she shuns any attempts to make friends, particularly with the landlady’s talkative grandson Wybie (short for Wyborn or Why were you born?). Eventually Coraline discovers a small door in the wall of her new home that opens up into a bizarre tunnel, which leads to an alternate version of her home, complete with an Other Mother and Other Father.
These versions of her parents dote on the girl and cook her delicious food, but they sport buttons for eyes and speak with a forced cheeriness. They invite Coraline to stay forever as their daughter; all she needs to do is let them sew buttons into her own eye sockets. I think a lot of other people would have had Coraline at least consider this option if it meant her perfect world, but thankfully Gaiman gives his character some intelligence. Coraline refuses, and suddenly finds herself trapped in a now-nightmarish dreamscape.
Here’s where the film goes from a gloomy yet beautiful fantasy romp into pure horror that left a room full of children to terrified to utter a sound. Suddenly the doppelgangers of Coraline’s parents and neighbors turn into scary, warped creatures, some skeletal, others bloated as if rotten. Selick goes not for cheap scares, but for genuine, nail-biting horror. The world quite literally falls apart around our unlikely heroine, and she has to buck up fast to save her skin.
Ultimately, the film excels because it brings together three like-minded men whose styles mesh marvelously. First off, you’ve got Neil Gaiman, the comic book giant who helped propel the medium with his acclaimed “Sandman” series before becoming an equally acclaimed prose novelist. He gives us characters rarely seen in children’s films; Coraline’s snobbishness and her parents’ neglect offer up interesting perspectives, and they resemble the heroines and supporting characters of animation master Hayao Miyazaki more than any other Western cartoon I’ve seen. In an age when everything, everything is shamelessly pandered to children and rendered so totally inoffensive that nothing challenges kids to think anymore (save Pixar films), it's beyond refreshing to see a story that dares to point out the inexperience and folly of youth and to knock a girl down a few pegs for her arrogance. It is not cruel in any sense, but it shows that actions have consequences, even for those too young to know better.
Then there’s Henry Selick, who makes you think that “Coraline” was a comic all along instead of a prose novel. He seems to be using 3-D not to make a world more vibrant and real but gloomier and more disturbing. Finally, French composer Bruno Coulais, making his U.S. debut with the film. His score eschews the predictable pauses and annoying blasts of typical horror scores in favor of a deeply atmospheric soundtrack that unsettles as much as the film’s images.
It’s hard to judge a children’s film because you have to take a movie’s audience into consideration, and that would mean giving a number of weak family fare a pass. However, I must warn anyone thinking of taking a young child to see this film: it’s scary as all get-out. Just because it’s a cartoon and it’s rated PG doesn’t mean it’s kid’s fare. What it is is a bold new possibility for stop-motion animation, which looks more beautiful here than it ever has: one in which its boundless capacities for Expressionism could give way to a rebirth in moody horror films to combat the prevalent torture porn of today. Yes, the film will appeal more to cinephiles and appreciators of art than it will children, but they’re getting a Pixar film a year it seems. I remember having to wait 2-3 between each one. Kids these days; they don’t know how good they have it.