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The West Wing
Directed by Henry Selick
A young girl (Fanning) walks through a secret door in her new home and discovers an alternate version of her life...
I was so torn watching the trailers for Coraline; I've been a fan of Neil Gaiman's comic books for years and love Selick's The Nightmare Before Christmas.
But Gaiman is also responsible for the beautiful but pointless MirrorMask, and Selick brought us Monkeybone. My first impressions were that this new film could be a spectacular, but essentially empty, exercise.
No doubt it's beautiful. Coraline has trumpted its originality in the press - a fully stop-motion animated 3D film. And it's captivating to a large extent due to its wide-wandering imagination. Where else could you see Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders voice a pair of nearly obscenely nude obese has-been vaudevillians, or a bizarrely big-bellied but otherwise stick-like Eastern European acrobat who is apparently training jumping mice to perform circus acts?
I was enchanted by a lot of Coraline, and very disturbed in a delicious way by some of it as well. In the beginning especially, there's a sense of dread that's quite rare in films.
This is, after all, essentially an animated horror film. But, unlike Nightmare, it's probably too scary and intense for little children. That sense of humor and humanity that marked Selick's earlier film is absent here. There are a lot of funny bits, but the flow is jerky - you're never quite sure where you are emotionally, and sometimes, often even, you're nowhere at all.
And that's really the problem. While you develop a quick connection to Coraline at the start of the film, that sense of her emotional journey never goes any further. What's the point here? Coraline's parents are not particularly nice to her, and are preoccupied with their own lives. This isn't a case where a child is going to learn to understand she's truly loved, because there's nothing good about the way she's treated.
When Coraline goes "through the Looking Glass," crawling through a hidden passage to a secret world, it's not better or worse than what she's left.
In a sense, what's missing from Coraline is any sense of what the world should be. A film works by orienting the audience solidly in some reality, however bizarre, that has its own firm rules. It has a morality and an ethics, or it makes its point by turning everything on its head.
But here, even Coraline's real life has the quality of a dream, so her journey leaves us cold. It doesn't help that you can't help but be aware that the underlying theme is that of a cold, controlling hateful mother - both in reality and in the world where Coraline finds her "Other Mother." This isn't a story about choosing good over bad, or reality over fiction, but of choosing the lesser of two evils.
And in the end, while that may be an accurate viewpoint that many people share about the state of things in the world today, it ends up leaving Coraline like a dip in a shallow pool of shifting surface colors. The play of light and shape is interesting, but ultimately doesn't illuminate either the human condition through Coraline, or much of Coraline herself. There's no big hurdle except an overt one, no essential change or learning curve.
A lot of time and work went into Coraline. It's worth seeing, but in the end, it doesn't mean much.