Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"Coraline": review

I re-watched "Coraline" last night. The film is a Laika production (the same group producing the upcoming "Kubo and the Two Strings"), and is directed by Henry Selick, from Selick's screenplay, which is adapted from Neil Gaiman's novel Coraline. The story centers on eleven-year-old Coraline Jones, a spunky tween whose family has just moved into a spooky mansion called the Pink Palace Apartments, an enormous house that has been divided into several living spaces. The Joneses occupy the central living space; above them lives an eccentric, over-the-hill Russian acrobat who talks to his mice; below live two equally eccentric—and eternally bickering—British ladies who own a gaggle of frisky black terriers. Bored out of her mind and unable to engage her parents' attention, Coraline goes exploring. She encounters Wybie, a bizarre boy of roughly the same age, and dislikes him immediately, but Wybie proves quirkily interesting. As the story unfolds, Coraline falls asleep, wakes up, and follows some mice to a mysterious door that leads to an entirely different universe—one populated by people and beings that have buttons for eyes. Coraline's button-eyed mother, in this universe, calls herself "the Other Mother," and unlike in Coraline's boring real-world existence, her alternate parents pay attention to her, cook only the best food, and let her have all the fun she wants. A black cat from Coraline's real world follows her into this alternate universe, where it acquires the power of speech and acts as a sort of Greek chorus, warning Coraline that she's in danger, and that the Other Mother is not who she appears to be.

Let's talk first about what "Coraline" gets right. The film doesn't pander: the plot is complex and will require kids to think hard and keep track of events. The visuals also eventually reach a level of intensity that will scare much younger kids: this isn't anything like the stop-motion-animated "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" Christmas special that we all grew up on: this is the full darkness associated with typical British children's stories. The eccentric characters that populate the plot are bona fide eccentric, and the mansion is the animated equivalent of a standard horror-movie mansion, with all the requisite nooks, crannies, shadows, and extradimensional portals. One nice touch is the obstreperous carpet at the beginning, which almost always has a wrinkle in it, no matter how many times Coraline tries to stamp the wrinkle smooth. The interactions between Coraline and her parents (who are writers) also strike me as emotionally valid; kids around Coraline's age will relate to the frustration of dealing with stupid, inattentive parents.* I can also see Neil Gaiman's ontological murkiness infused throughout the story: to what extent are all these events merely part of a dream? Could all of this simply be happening inside Coraline's head? (Gaiman uses the same trick in his novel American Gods, in which we're never quite sure what ontological status those gods enjoy: are they merely figments of the imagination? If so, then how are they affecting real-world events?) There are mature and heady themes floating in and through the story (feminism among them; the movie easily passes the Bechdel Test), so no one can accuse "Coraline" of being just superficial fun and games.

But despite all the positives, I didn't really get into "Coraline," and I'm still trying to figure out why. Part of the problem may be that the animators went full-on Tim Burton with their storytelling and their visual aesthetic. I had originally thought that "Coraline" had been either directed or produced by Burton, but as far as I can tell, he had nothing to do with this film. I suppose "Coraline" belongs to a "Burton wave" of stop-motion animation that focuses on misfits and marginals, the good-hearted ugly and the well-intended bizarre. Burton's style is fairly charming, but I wasn't charmed by the characters in "Coraline." Coraline herself is rendered in a way that I found visually unpleasant, and hunched-over Wybie even more so. Same goes for Coraline's father, and for the talking black cat. The musical score, which often relies on vocals, was also somewhat annoying. Deeper than these problems, though, was the problem of how the film dealt with magical reality. In any fantasy, including a horror-fantasy like "Coraline," when you employ magic, the rules for that magic need to be consistent, otherwise the viewer has no idea what to expect next. In a story with consistent rules for how magic works, the storyteller can build suspense. "Coraline" relies too heavily on exposition to explain what's going on and why, and the rules of magic in the alternate universe have been left so vague that I often wondered how on earth Coraline was able to decide on a specific course of action. This, to me, was a far more annoying problem than the musical score.

That said, "Coraline" isn't a bad film; it's just a film that didn't hit me the right way. I won't say that I don't recommend it, but I also can't say that I give it a thumbs-up. You have to have a certain aesthetic sense, I think, to appreciate the movie.

*It's only years later that kids realize just who, exactly, had been stupid and inattentive. Unless they have the misfortune of being born to shite parents.

1 comment:

Charles said...

One thing I didn't mention in our discussion of this last night is that I saw this one in the cinema in 3D, and it is one of the best 3D films I've ever seen. The 3D effect is only used in the obvious way (i.e., having something pop out of the screen toward the viewer) once toward the beginning, but for the rest of the film it serves to create a very deep and rich environment. That may be why I liked the visuals, despite their Burtonesque quality. I expect it might lose something in 2D.