Monday, January 24, 2011

Review: Coraline and the Secret Door (Henry Selick, 2009)


2009 was really a great year for animated feature films. Joining Henry Selick's Coraline are Pixar's transcendental masterpiece, Up, and Wes Anderson's brilliant adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel, Fantastic Mr Fox. I remember watching Coraline at the cinemas in 3D and really enjoying the experience. Endowed with stunning stop-motion animated visuals it is an imaginative, unique and genuinely creepy fairytale sure to please audiences of all ages. Henry Selick, who directed the beloved children classics The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996), expanded the possibilities of animation through the process of stop-motion. He gathered another Academy Award nomination here for his work on Coraline in the category of Best Animated Feature. Receiving popularity and acclaim at the 2009 Sydney Film Festival, Coraline is based on Neil Gaiman's 2002 novel of the same name, and was a massive project. At its peak it involved the work of 450 people, including up to 35 animators and 250 technicians and designers. The budget ballooned into the 60 Million range after the voice-cast of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David and Ian McShane were introduced, but the end result is an exquisitely realized and universally well-received fairy tale adventure.


Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is a clever and curious self-proclaimed 'explorer' who moves with her mother (Teri Hatcher) and father to the Pink Palace Apartments in Ashland, Oregon. This is an old house subdivided into three residences. Beneath the Jones' lives retired actresses Mrs Spink and Forcible (voiced by Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French), and above lives the eccentric Russian acrobat Mr Bobinsky (voiced by Ian McShane). With her parents working on a gardening catalogue to desperately make ends meet, Coraline finds herself bored and neglected. On an exploration of the house she finds a small locked door, meets the landlady's grandson, Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.) and a stray black cat out and about in the grounds. That night she is awoken by the sound of a mouse and follows it to the secret door, which is now missing the bricks that previously blocked the entrance. She crawls through the tunnel and finds herself in the "Other World", a world identical to her own and inhabited by her "Other Mother" and "Other Father", who function as doppelgangers to her real parents. In a sharp contrast to the other world, her parents, despite having black buttons to replace their eyes, are far more attentive to Coraline, the house is richly adorned and brightly lit and Coraline is immediately invited to sit down to a luscious feast. She is seduced by the magical beauty of the world; by her "Other Father's" garden, and by a pair of shows she attends in the other two apartments. Each of the characters, including Wybie (who has been rendered mute) and the cat (who can now talk) have been altered to conform to Coraline's wishes of a parallel 'better' world. When she returns to her reality she finds herself once again ignored by her real parents, who dismiss her stories of the world as childish. But, like many fairytale alternate realities, all is not as it seems. The Other Mother tries to keep Coraline imprisoned within her own creation by revealing she must have buttons sewn over her eyes. When Coraline refuses, her true sinister intentions are revealed, and she transforms into a monstrous version of herself and refuses to let Coraline leave. She discovers that there are other children who have been trapped by the spell of the Other Mother and Coraline must subsequently complete three challenges and free the souls of the lost children trapped in the world before her and ultimately save the rest of her real family from a similar fate. She finds unlikely allies in the alternate Wybie and the black cat and the final act is quite intense and genuinely creepy.

Technically, this is a spectacular achievement, and grand entertainment. Selick adopts the perfect look to bring Gaiman's story to life, with so many subtle features effortlessly conveyed. The oddities of each the characters are really charming, and Coraline is quite likable as the lead. The voice-cast is also stellar, especially Dakota Fanning and Keith David. The film opens strongly, developing Coraline's curiosity, her aggravation of not being taken seriously and her frustration in being cooped up in a boring old house. This alternative reality, and the adventures it endows upon her, is everything sought by her personality. But once the film becomes darker and becomes a rescue attempt of the missing eyes of the 'lost souls' it delves into cliche a bit and becomes a bit carried away with its own ingenious irrelevancies. One excellent example is the sequence where the world starts disappearing as Coraline and the cat start to walk away from Pink Palace Apartments. The visuals slowly begin to dissolve into white, where it remains for a few seconds before the apartments begin to slowly appear once again. Coraline exclaims: "How can you walk away from something and come right back to it" or something similar. The cat explains: "By walking around the world." This is a brilliant visual feat, but somewhat unnecessary to the plot. It is these few moments that let the film down and make it a tad overlong at 100 minutes. Still, Coraline and the Secret Door is one of the years best films and is an animated feature I highly respect and can certainly recommend.

My Rating: 4 Stars

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