Directed by Henry Selick
Starring Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, and Dawn French
Review by Scott Johnson
There is little question that Coraline is a visual feast, using an innovative animation technique and shown in 3-D where available. It will likely be remembered for some time--and rightly so--for the cinematography which takes the movie quite far and for many viewers will be more than enough to satisfy them. There are also great moments of charm and atmosphere that really show the potential of the film which is somewhat more lacking in its story.
The movie begins with Coraline and her parents moving into a creepy old house. There are a number of interesting neighbors and mysteries that Coraline spends the entire first half of the movie discovering. The most peculiar of these is a door in the house that takes her to a parallel world where her parents are much nicer than her "other" parents but also have buttons for eyes. This other world will eventually portray its darker secret which becomes the thrust of the story itself.
While all of this is very attractively and inventively animated, too often--especially in the first half--we are left watching Coraline being entertained by the events around her rather than being entertained ourselves. As much as the visuals are a great achievement, I think there is both a lack of real wonder and a lack of terror in this movie even though it is really about wonder and terror. Not that either of these are missing entirely--there are some fine moments, especially the terror as Coraline discovers the drawbacks of the new world she has found. And there are certainly a few moments that will be too scary for younger children--I brought a 6-year-old who stayed through the entire movie but was definitely pushed to her limit, and I know another person who had the same experience with a similarly aged child
The movie doesn't need to be scarier but really could benefit from being creepier. Drawing out the horror that Coraline eventually finds would be one part of this--actually lingering over the what makes her discovery so frightening rather than discuss it in one scene and then follow with some other scary moments. There is some dark humor in Coraline--especially around one the neighbors' collection of stuffed dogs--but not nearly as much as it could have delivered.
It is hard to explain this without giving away the plot, but consider other films that have succeeded or failed in the same way. The Golden Compass, for example, holds a secret about what the adults plan to do to the children in the movie, but again does far too little to linger over the real creepiness at play--although I thought the movie was entertaining in other ways. On the other hand, the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory succeeds exactly where these two fall short. Remember how Willie Wonka feigns concern over these awful children but clearly delights in watching them get their just desserts, so to speak. The dark and malicious humor in many of his lines--"The suspense is terrible . . . I hope it'll last!"--are what give us a stake in not only appreciating the scenery but in wanting to know how this morality tale will play out--and enjoying every moment of well-deserved suffering by the children.
Roger Ebert in his review says that Coraline "is not a nice little girl. She's unpleasant, complains, has an attitude and makes friends reluctantly." Actually, I think her biggest problem is that she has parents who don't really pay any attention to her. I would have found her more interesting had she been a bit more of a thankless brat who was seduced by the "other" world because she didn't appreciate the real world enough. I don't so much care about whatever lesson may or may not be learned, but I think this would have been more effective at creating the sort of tension that Coraline is attempting. It is much more fun when we the audience get to be Willie Wonka, devilishly looking on the guilty as they struggle with their little moral dilemmas and can only hope to claw their way back to humanity. Hitchcock understood this, and so did the Ancient Greeks--although unlike Hitch, they were much less open to allowing their heroes to find redemption and a happy ending.
Instead, the first half of the film is surprisingly slow and unnecessarily long. I saw the movie opening weekend at the only screen showing it in 3-D in San Francisco with an audience largely of adults--likely people who were looking for a unique movie-going experience. In some ways, they found it--the film really is a visual treasure and that for many people will be enough to make it worth viewing. I was surprised, though, by how quiet the audience was throughout most of the movie.