Monday, February 16, 2009

Coraline is good...what else is there to say?

Coraline is, easily, the best film released in 2009 so far. Of course, that's not saying too much. But low expectations notwithstanding, this is a beautiful, intriguing, sometimes scary, and always entertaining picture that will surely be an Animated Feature nominee at next year's Academy Awards.

All that is true, and yet I sort of don't have much else to say about the film's virtues. Truth be told, I have more ammunition built up against this year's bad and mediocre films than I have more sparkling bon-mots to bestow on this much better movie. Why? Well, I guess it's because as good as the film is, it is not quite great, which disappoints me on a certain level. The reason: as visually breathtaking as the film is, I get the sinking suspicion that there isn't much else going on underneath the surface. The Great animated films reach for more.

The film is based on Neil Gaiman's graphic novel, is produced by Tim Burton, and written and directed by Henry Selick, the ambitious animator who gave us The Nightmare Before Christmas, among others. I would submit that Coraline is, in fact, Selick's best-looking film ever--the film is a stunning labyrinth of darkly creative cinema-scapes, filling the screen with at once funny and subtly horrifying images. The story, too, has more potential than any Selick and Burton have ever brought to the screen before. The only thing missing is that vital component to any film's humanity: a beating heart.

I'm not asking for the film to wear its heart on its sleeve, like WALL-E did. But there needs to be an emotional undercurrent to make this story of a disaffected girl with unattentive parents work. The plot for the uninitiated: Coraline has just moved with her parents to a new house. Her mother has little time to deal with Coraline's needs, and her father is perpetually sitting at his computer screen, writing a book that may never get finished. But there is something mysterious going on in this new house--one night, Coraline is drawn to a hidden door in a downstairs room. Once opened, the door extends, resembling a cross between a slinky and a birth canal, leading a an alternate reality where Coraline's "Other Mother" dotes on her in most traditional way, and her "Other Father" sings her magical songs and tucks her into bed at night. Other than the surface family happiness, one thing separates this new world from reality: everyone but Coraline has buttons for eyes.

Coraline's tagline is, simply, "Be Careful What You Wish For." As expected, it is not as happy as it seems in Coraline's alternate world, and soon sinister things happen at every turn, making Coraline wonder if she really wants to escape her world after all. The story and the message, in principle, is golden. But what I found lacking from the film is a tangible reason--other than the threat of having her eyes replaced with buttons--that Coraline would want to abandon the fantasy world for the real one. There needs to be something slightly more substantial than good home cooking and buttons-for-eyes to distinguish what's good and bad about The Other World. There needs to be a stronger emotional pull to Coraline's yearning--fear really seems to be the only factor that drives Coraline back to her real family. Finding a reason to love--in spite of her increasingly sinister surroundings and in spite of parents who may never be as perfect as she wants them to be--would have been a more fulfilling subtext, a more challenging journey for Coraline to travel.

Somewhat sadly, that is not the journey we get with this film. And as a result, I've nitpicked the poor movie to death. However, anything based on Neil Gaiman and brought to life by Henry Selick is automatically more interesting than any typical film, animated or otherwise. And true to that notion, Coraline sets a high standard for the films in this first quarter of 2009. It is a twisted family fairy tale, and like the best animated films, it pushes the limits of what kids can handle without going too far, and plays just as well to adults.

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