Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 02/06/09 04:50:39

"A welcome return to form for director Henry Selick."
5 stars (Awesome)

Filmmaking pioneer Willis O’Brien first brought stop-motion animation to moviegoers in the 1920s and the 1930s through "The Lost World" and "King Kong." Fifteen years later, a young animator, Ray Harryhausen. helped O’Brien on 1949’s "Mighty Joe Young." Harryhausen would go on to perfect stop-motion animation ("Jason and the Argonauts," "Mysterious Island," "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad"). As a commercial art form, stop-motion animation has been relegated to the pre-digital past, but don’t tell that to Henry Selick ("James and the Giant Peach," "The Nightmare Before Christmas"), the writer/director of "Coraline," a stop-motion animated film shot in stereoscopic 3D based on Neil Gaiman’s ("Beowulf," "Anansi Boys," "American Gods," "Stardust," "Neverwhere," "Good Omens," "Sandman") Hugo- and Nebula-winning dark fantasy novel. Time, labor, and resource intensive, stop-motion animation requires a unique artistic temperament and extreme dedication by everyone involved, with the end result usually years away. Luckily for us, "Coraline" has been well worth the wait.

Newly arrived in town, Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and her parents, Mel (Teri Hatcher) and Charlie (John Hodgman), move into the “Pink Palace Apartments,” a slightly dilapidated, three-story house. Although they have the first and second floor to themselves, they share the Pink Palace with Mr. Bobinski (Ian McShane), an attic-dwelling ex-circus acrobat who claims to be training a mouse circus, and Miss Forcible (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Spink (Dawn French), ex-actresses who live in the basement apartment with their Scottie dogs. Wandering outside the Pink Palace, Coraline encounters a black cat that seems to follow her every move and Wybie Lovat (Robert Baily, Jr.), a hyperactive, hyper-talkative neighbor. Wybie gives Coraline a stuffed doll once owned by his grandmother that oddly resembles Coraline.

After failing to pull her parents away from their work, Coraline decides to explore the Pink Palace. She eventually discovers a sealed door in the drawing room. To her disappointment, the door opens to a brick wall. That night, however, Caroline spots a jumping mouse outside her bedroom door. She follows him downstairs and to the door. This time the door opens into a brightly lit, womb-like tunnel where Coraline's Other Mother and Other Father await her. Coraline's other parents are identical to her "real" parents, but have black buttons for eyes. The Other Mother and Other Father shower Caroline with attention and gifts. The Other Mother introduces Caroline to an analog Wybie that can’t speak.

Caroline quickly discovers the meaning of the phrase, “Be careful what you wish you," (it's unsurprisingly the tagline for Coraline). Despite the simplicity of the this theme (or maybe because of it), Selick to weave a mesmerizing, disturbing film, equal parts Alice in Wonderland and Grimm fairy tale (by way of Stephen King’ It!), with the Other Mother representing the maternal instinct taken to suffocating extremes (among other things) and Caroline the typically resilient, hyper-resourceful heroine children and their parents will root for. They’ll also identify with Caroline’s initial discomfort and seeming powerlessness after moving to a new town, the lack of friends her own age (with the exception of Wybie), the desire for fantasy-filled, escapist adventures, and parents that genuinely listen.

Not surprisingly, Selick excels in the two, distinct worlds he creates for Caroline. Taking a page or two from Powell/Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death and Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire), the “real” world is colorless and grey, drained of joy and humor while the Other World is bursting with color, light, Dr. Seuss-like gadgets, death- and gravity-defying performers, a “real” mouse circus, and much more. The garden’s flowers are both beautiful and dangerous (a hint of things to come for Caroline), the Pink Palace, true to its name, has a fresh coat of pink paint and white trim. Everything about the Other World is, at least initially, attractive to Caroline and, by extension, to us as well.

Funded through LAIKA, a production company founded by Phil Knight (of "Nike" fame), and released through Focus Features, "Caroline" took several years of effort by Selick and his talented craftspeople to produce (the first teaser trailer premiered almost two years ago at the 2007 Comic-Con in San Diego). "Caroline" is also the first stop-motion animated film to be produced in stereoscopic 3D from the beginning of the project ("The Nightmare Before Christmas" was converted from 2D to 3D). The 3D in "Caroline" never feels cheap or forced. Instead of projecting objects at the audience, Selick wisely chose to create or increase the depth of the environments, which in turn makes for a fully immersive experience: once you enter "Caroline’s" world, you may never want to come back (except in your nightmares).

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