Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Coraline: The Third Dimension of Animation

Henry Selick's Coraline, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, is a powerhouse of visual invention, filled with the wonder, freshness and singularity of vision that distinguishes only our most beloved fairy tales.  Seeing it in 3-D, in particular, will be one of the great cinematic experiences of your life, provided that you remember the following things:

1) It is not for young children.  The film is fraught with Freudian imagery disturbing enough to rival Un Chien Andalou.  
2) The humor is corrosive enough to bore a hole through a block of steel.
3) This is a movie of subtle wonderments.

This last point is what shocked me the most and instantly made Coraline one of my all-time favorite animated films.  Every other 3-D animated film I have seen (The Polar Express, Beowulf, etc.) has sent me from the theater with a mallet in one hand and a pack of advils in the other -- whichever could do the job of satiating my headache quicker.  In contrast, I went into Coraline already nursing a headache and emerged feeling refreshed.  

The director Henry Selick is famous for creating eye-popping stop motion features like The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and The Giant Peach.  The visual design of Coraline is a perfect cross and arguably his best.  It is as macabre as Nightmare but it isn't as grotesque.  It is as fanciful as James and The Giant Peach, but it is also more sophisticated.  There is something wonderfully tactile about the characters and the production design.  

The story concerns a little girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning), who is unhappy at home and one day opens a portal that transports her to an alternate universe where she meets her "other" mother and father.  Unlike her real parents, Coraline's other mother and father pay attention to her and basically live to satisfy her every whim.  Everything else in this other universe seems to follow suit, until Coraline learns that in order to stay there permanently, she will have to let her other Mother sew buttons over her eyes and this is where (as they say) the plot thickens.  

I wouldn't dream of giving anything else away.  The movie needs to be seen to be believed and probably even to be understood.  Let's just say there are many provocative symbols and meanings hidden beneath the imagery in Coraline.  Enough to get even the most jaded adult reflecting thoughtfully.  Ultimately the movie is a revelation not because of its dazzling visuals or it's taut pacing, but rather because of its subtlety.  

I can't remember the last time I saw an animated film that was this understated yet effective at the same time.  This is the real, untapped, third dimension of animation.  Selick is a director who intuitively understands the dynamics of storytelling and his gifts are instructive in showing us the importance of building to big moments.  Not every moment is a climax.  Instead there is a pace and a structure to the plot and this makes his set-pieces all the more thrilling.  Selick values silence and anticipation as well as he does old-fashioned razzle-dazzle.  As a result Coraline is more enchanting than any other 3-D film you may have seen prior.  It dangles the carrot of imagination in front of us, instead of smacking us over the head with it.