February 4, 2009

Written by Matt Goldberg

Kids today need films like “Coraline”. They need films like “Coraline” because they need to be scared, unnerved, but not in a way that’s going to destroy their psyches or desensitize them before they’ve hit puberty. I remember an article by Steven King (a guy who knows a little bit about horror) saying that the most horrifying films were actually movies like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and if you can remember being a kid and seeing that movie, he’s right. I know I couldn’t make it through the Queen’s transformation into an old hag. Fear is like a muscle and if you don’t exercise it occasionally, you’re going to grow up weak and afraid of everything.

“Coraline” is the first “Hard-PG” film I’ve seen in some time. There’s no blood or swearing but it manages to be deeply unnerving despite its simple moral of “Be careful what you wish for,” Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) is alone, bored, and most importantly, neglected by her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman). While she meets some interesting people at her new home, she finds a much better world through a tiny portal where everything is like her life only she’s celebrated, loved, and everything is meant to entertain her.

While these delightful detours are enchanting (especially in 3D), it’s where the film finds itself most stuck in a rut. For the first half, we’re left in a repetitive structure where Coraline will meet an oddball neighbor, go through the portal, and then see that neighbor redesigned and completely devoted to her entertainment. That’s the other world for Coraline: everything she doesn’t get at home, she gets in the other world, most notably, entertainment. But in the second half, Coraline discovers the cost of this new world and the darkness hidden beneath the enchantment. It’s here that the film becomes a completely different animal and something that’s almost unexpected since Selick doesn’t provide enough foreshadowing and subtlety to provide some needed to tension to the first half of the film.

The pay-off however is some truly creepy stuff like people made of rats, claws made of sewing-needles, and the ghosts of lost children. For adults like me, this kind of stuff is awesome and it’s delightful to see it in a PG-movie. If I had a ten-year-old kid, I would want to see this with him opening day (but he’d be all like “No, Dad! I want to see ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’!” and I’d be all like “I HAVE NO SON!”).

As for the animation, it’s unsurprisingly gorgeous and it’s not because I’m a gigantic sucker for stop-motion. While the 3D is neat, “Coraline” is probably the first Digital 3D movie I’ve seen that will work just as well in 2D and maybe a little better since it won’t strain your eyes as much. The only thing lost in a 2D viewing is the depth-of-field which allows you to see all the great detail and artistry Selick has put into crafting this world. It’s a beautiful looking movie and will probably end up as a demo-disc for Blu-Ray owners.

The voice work is also strong with a special nod to Teri Hatcher of all people. As Coraline’s real-world mom, she provides the needed ennui and frustration so that when she’s voicing other-world mom her vocal work provides some of that much-needed tension and darkness the first-half of the film lacks. Also, props to John Hodgman who plays Coraline’s father and sings a catchy little song that was stuck in my head for an entire weekend.

Henry Selick has done a great service to Neil Gaiman’s words and crafted a nice little dark fantasy that will toughen up your kids without traumatizing them. As for the adults in the audience, it’s a visual stunner that’s never condescending and may even creep you out a bit.

Rating —– B

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