Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 5, 2014

Director Report Card: Henry Selick (2009)

4. Coraline

In 2009, I wandered into a screening of “Coraline,” not knowing anything about the flick other then it was directed by Henry Selick and based on a book by Neil Gaiman that I hadn’t read yet. With the film being dumped in the doldrums of February, I kept my expectations low. “Coraline” wound up surprising me, proving itself as a visually spectacular and surprisingly sophisticated film. The more I thought about it in the months since seeing it, the more I loved it. The film quickly crept to the top of my best of list that year. I saw the movie on a date, with a girl ironically named Caroline. The relationship didn’t last but my love for the movie did. Even with a giant like “The Nightmare Before Christmas” looming over his entire career, it might still be my favorite Henry Selick movie.

Coraline Jones’ parents, writers for a garden supplies catalog, have moved across country from Michigan to Oregon. Living in a quirky apartment called the Pink Palace, Coraline is bored and frustrated, especially by her workaholic and prickly parents. On the look out for adventure, she discovers a small door hidden in the wall of one room. Crawling through the door at night, Coraline finds a mirror world that’s more colorful, where her parents are happy to see her and flood her with attention. The only problem is that the Other Mother has buttons for eyes. Soon, it becomes clear that the other dimension is not as harmless as it appears. Soon, Coraline finds her self in the middle of a terrifying adventure.

 “Coraline” is easily the best looking stop-motion animated film ever made. With “Corpse Bride,” Tim Burton and his cohorts wanted to make a stop motion film that looked like it was CGI. With “Coraline,” Selick embraced the Earthiness of the medium. Everything in the film has a hand-made quality to it. The film emphasizes that the characters live on miniature sets, beautiful realized model buildings. There’s a tactile sense to the puppets. Their skin looks real, marked with freckles and cells. The movement of their hair has weight and heft. The clothes the characters wear were knitted for them with tiny knitting needles. My favorite gag is fog created with fluffy cotton balls. Even the way the characters move have an expressiveness to them. The facial features are animated and realistic. Sagging bellies and breasts bounce with movement. An amazing amount of detail and work was put into creating this world, making it appear lived-in and realistic.

“Coraline” is visually spectacular in other ways too. Coraline’s waking world is frequently drab and grey. The Other World, in comparison, is colorful. Some of the film’s best sequence take place in this alternate universe. Upon entering, it’s immediately obvious to Coraline that this world is brighter then her own. Her father sings songs with the assistance of a robotic piano. The food prepared for her looks delicious despite being tiny and constructed. One of the most lovely moments in the film is when the Other Father presents Coraline with a beautiful, brilliant garden. Animated plants spring to life, tickling the girl. Bright red flowers open, corresponding to the music. Smiling Jack-O-Lanterns pop out of the water. The Father carries her on a vehicle that looks like a cross between a motorcycle and a preying mantis. They fly above, looking down on a beautifully rendered display of flowers, plants, and stones. “Coraline” was sold as a 3D spectacle and it’s one of the few times that technology actually made the theatrical experience better. The movie is gorgeous to look at.

Despite being made after a nine year hiatus, Henry Selick hadn’t lost any of his visual flair in the time between “Monkeybone” and “Coraline.” The director’s trademark point-of-view shots appear several times. The camera follows Coraline as she swings over a theater or as a mouse bounces down a ramp. It even appears during quieter moment, like at the very end when Coraline is peacefully handing out drinks to her friends and family. Probably the best use of this device is when Coraline crawls through the tunnel connecting her world to the Other Dimension. As she stumbles through the bright blue passageway, so does the audience. Selick’s direction continues to be highly cinematic. Wybie enters with the camera swooping around him on his motorcycle, just for one example. “Coraline” looks good for multiple reasons.

The movie is really pretty. Yet what makes it truly memorable is its cast of characters. Coraline Jones is a great protagonist. The movie doesn’t back away from her prickliness. She’s mean to Wybie. Her parents are a bit rude but, even then, Coraline’s sarcasm towards them seems disrespectful. These are accurate examples of what it’s like to be a thirteen year old. Coraline is ultimately adventurous and strong. She’s possessed of a quirky sense of humor, best displayed when she attempts to convince her mom to buy her a new pair of gloves. In the final act, she straps on an arsenal of unique items and heads into the Other World to face the witch. During these moments, she comes off like a pint-sized bad ass. The movie doesn’t compromise her sense of realness but Coraline is a resourceful, incredibly endearing character.

Around her is a quirky supporting cast of characters. Mom always a neck brace which often look more like really big turtlenecks. She’s more then able to match her daughter’s sarcasm. Dad, meanwhile, drearily sits at his computer when not humming silly songs while handing out nasty looking dinners. The Pink Palace is full of oddball characters. Mr. Bobinsky might be an old alcoholic. His blue skin and talk of invisible mice doesn’t help his case. Yet he leaps around with incredible acrobatic skill. Living beneath the Jones’ residence are Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, two elderly women who were burlesque dancer in their younger days. Despite one moving with a walker and another being nearly blind, both still seem willing to relive their glory days. They also have a wall full of stuffed dead dogs and seem a little too eager for their latest pets to join them. The mischievous Wybie, who wears a welding mask painted with a skull and takes photographs with banana slugs, seems practically normal in comparison.

The term “modern fairy tale” gets thrown around a lot. However, the term seems like a good fit for “Coraline.” The story owes a lot to “Hansel and Gretel.” A child on the verge of adulthood wanders into a dark and sinister world. She’s lured in with treats, an idealized version of her home in this case. However, it’s a trap created by an evil witch that eats children. Unlike most modern fairy tale renditions, Coraline and her family are in real danger. The Other Mother isn’t just a variation on the old witch archetype, she’s also a take on the wicked fey, who kidnaps children and loves to play games. “Coraline” also understands the appeal of those stories. Both this film and “Hansel and Gretel” play on the unspoken fear every child has: That their parents secretly hate them. The Belledame prays on this fear, using it to exploit children so she can feed on their innocence.

The film is ultimately about wish fulfillment versus reality, and the horror and honor that can exist in-between. At first, the Other World meets all of Coraline’s whims and dreams. The parents are loving, attentive, and meet her every need. However, even at the beginning, she seems slightly put off by their generosity. After it becomes clear that the Other Mother has evil intentions, Coraline escapes back to her now-empty home. Alone in the house, she sits in mom and dad’s bed, between two pillows posed as her parents, weeping. Kids might resent their parents from time to time but ultimately they love and need them. Coraline loves her parents enough that she’s willing to fight off an evil spider monster to get them back. This is a proactive “Hansel and Gretel” story, one where the lost child slays the witch and its still able to reconcile with the abandoning parents.

“Coraline” is also something rare: A horror movie made for kids. From the beginning, the film is far more low-key then most other kid’s flicks. There’s no loud comic relief, the pace is slow, and the story is willing to build atmosphere. The realistically thorny dialogue marks the movie as edgier then expected too. However, from the moment the heroine’s dream world turns on her, the movie shows an amazingly willingness to get creepy. The way the Other Father is reduced to a mushed-mouth automaton, moved about by forces beyond is will, is off-putting and weird. The Other Mother morphs from an attractively human form to something else entirely. Every point of her is at a jagged angle, from her shoulders to her face. As Coraline continues to match her efforts, the Belldame’s appearance becomes more and more monstrous until, in the final reel, she’s a spider monster composed of wiry, pointed steel. The villain’s various tests has Coraline up against a man-eating venus fly trap made of stone and dirt, a murderous giant bug, a flock of bat-wing Scotty dogs (an image that easily could have been ridiculous but instead plays as creepy), human-taffy hybrids that want to tear her eyes out, and empty clothes eerily brought to life through squirming rats. The film’s visuals are charming and uncanny in equal measure. I hope that, when modern day kids want to watch something a little creepy, they reach for “Coraline,” a movie that doesn’t let the “kid’s movie” label keep it from being scary.

Speaking of that last act… “Coraline” is a bit slow moving in its middle sections but successfully coasts on its lovable characters and a sense of building uneasiness. Before the final lap, the quirky supporting characters gift Coraline with objects that will come in handy while battling the Belledame. Her pack full of items, she heads into the strange world. After challenging the evil witch, Coraline fights her way through four different scenarios. In a different area, she fights a specific threat, one that requires a different set of skills to defeat. After each enemy is bested, the surrounding zone fades to white and crumbles. After clearing the three stages, she confronts the Other Mother for one last final fight. It’s not surprising that “Coraline” would be adapted into a video game. The movie already mimics the typical game structure. There’s even a timer tracking Coraline’s motions, in the form of a silhouette of a button slowly eclipsing the moon. Whether this was intentional or not, I can’t say. It’s not a problem, as it provides a dramatic push in the final act. However, the similarities are slightly distracting.

Normally, I bitch when a director casts face-actors in roles that could have been filled by experienced voice actors. However, Henry Selick knows what he’s doing. Dakota Fanning probably would have been great as Coraline even in live action. Her voice works for the character’s snotty attitude yet still makes her extraordinarily strong. Teri Hatcher does well when voicing mom’s bitchier elements but a seductive side comes through as the Other Mother. John Hodgman is hilarious as the put-upon father before revealing a previously unseen Bing Crosby-style smoothness to his voice as the Other Father. Of course, Keith David is a veteran voice-over artist. Usually cast as stern authority figures or strong action heroes, David instead voices the Cat here, a mischievous if faithful figure that can freely transverse world. The role allows David to play a foppish dandy for once, his rich baritone proving well suited to the style.

Another reason “Coraline” is enchanting is its music. The nontraditional score combines an eerie children’s choir, humming nonsense words, with sparse piano and orchestral work. The opening track, later expanded during the credits into a number called “Dreaming,” sets the mood, as we watch the Other Mother’s spider-claws build the unusual doll that starts the story in motion. The wistful choir music provides an otherworldly tone to the film. The music is lovely to the ear without sounding like any other score. It is, without exaggeration, one of my favorite film scores in recent memory. Even the sole pop song on the soundtrack, “The Other Father Song” provided by They Might Be Giants, fits the film’s quirky tone.

Though not an enormous hit, “Coraline” was successful enough that its production company, Laika, has made a habit of producing quirky, visually similar animated films, like the also quite good “ParaNorman” and the upcoming “The Boxtrolls." “Coraline” had a pre-built-in cult following, made up of Selick and Gaiman fans. Yet the movie stands on its own merits. It’s more then just a feast for the eyes but a creepy and powerful fable. It was rightfully nominated for a Best Animated Picture Oscar that year and, in a year without an unstoppable power house like “Up,” would have won. Great as that movie is, history might show “Coraline” becoming a greater classic. [Grade: A]

The critical success of "Coraline" brought Henry Selick back into the public eyes. Since then, the director seems to have toiled on films that either didn't get made or are currently stuck in development hell. He was attached to another Neil Gaiman penned project called "The Graveyard Book," which seemed like a perfect fit for his style, but Selick has since left that project. He was briefly attached to a live action project called "A Tale Dark and Grim." That seems to have been put on the back-burner in favor of "The Shadow King," a long gestating and troubled project that Selick wrote himself. That appears to finally be moving forward and I hope to see it soon.

Revisiting Selick's films have made it clearer to me what an underrated, wonderfully talented filmmaker he is. Even his worst movie still has attributes that are unique to the filmmaker. I really like the guy and I hope he makes more stuff going forward into the future.

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

Great review! Here are a few thoughts I wrote about my viewing of "Coraline" a few years ago.

The whimsical paring of Henry Selick and Tim Burton serve up a real winner in "Coraline". The movie is a stop-motion wonder that is stunningly pretty, yet gloomy and sometimes frightening. This really isn't a movie for kids in the sense that kid's movies are categorized today. It's got some real scares, a true sense of danger, and a scary vibe that harkens back to films like "The Wizard of Oz", "The Nightmare Before Christmas", or maybe even "Gremlins".

The Coraline character is delightfully curious and totally likable. Her facial expressions and voice (Dakota Fanning) reflect a smart girl searching for the ideal family and finding that she has much to be thankful for back home.

This is not something that your average Attention-Deficit-Disorder stricken 10-year old is going to sit through. There is as much depth to this story as there is in most adult dramas. There are also some laughs provided by many of the quirky characters and Coraline is a sharp-witted, funny squirt herself. I knew going in that "Coraline" would be a visual treat but what I got was a very nuanced story about appreciating the things you already have.