Saturday, February 7, 2009

Movie Review: Coraline

There are movies which defy classification, where comparison is all but impossible and we must struggle to find an analogy. But from the moment we heard it was in production, there was little question that Coraline would one day be held alongside Nightmare Before Christmas, for better or worse.

Indeed, while Tim Burton (iD&Di: .33) is oft associated with the holiday classic, it is Henry Selick (iD&Di: .37) who sat in the director's chair. And now, many years later, Selick has returned to direct another stop-motion picture.

In the meantime, Burton himself attempted to recreate the wonder of Nightmare. A few years ago, he released The Corpse Bride, a modest offering which amused us even as it left us disappointed. While there was nothing wrong with The Corpse Bride, it fundamentally failed to live up to our expectations.

There was some debate, in fact, whether Coraline would suffer the same fate.

We are pleased to tell you, however, that where Burton failed, Selick has succeeded. Coraline is a fascinating movie which engaged us at every moment. It is a rare film; one best enjoyed in three-dimensions, if you've an opportunity to experience it in such a form.

This is a true joy to behold: fantasy at its best. There are moments of rapture and beauty that invoke awe, and there are moments of horror that will make you shiver. And all of these flow together with the precision and care of great art. Never is the pacing rushed, but never does Coraline fail to captivate.

What surprised us most was the intended audience. Despite all our expectations, we can now say that Coraline was, in fact, a movie meant for children.

Of course, there was a time when all animated pictures were meant for the eyes of children. And, we suspect, outside The Middle Room, many still believe this to be the case. But those of us who follow the trends and pay attention are well aware that films have taken a darker turn. While any Pixar movie is accessible to children, they are not who the movie is made for.

But, for all its darkness and all its horror - and indeed, there is a great deal of each - Coraline is a movie which addresses its younger viewers directly. It is a movie made for children and accessible to adults, an odd twist on filmmaking in this post-Shrek world.

Yes, Coraline speaks to the children watching, but it talks to them as if they were adults.

We will return to Nightmare Before Christmas, but first we'd like to mention a few other pictures we considered as we thought about Coraline and discussed it in depth. We found certain portions reminiscent of a version of Alice crafted by a Czech filmmaker we viewed years ago, for instance. In particular, the thin line between dolls and taxidermy seemed inspired by Alice.

But the movie most relevant - besides, of course, Nightmare Before Christmas, is perhaps Monster House, an underappreciated picture we were likewise able to enjoy in three dimensions. Both Monster House and Coraline incorporated elements of horror films into a children's story while remaining approachable for young viewers.

But Monster House, for all its charm, was nowhere near as inventive or intriguing as Coraline. Coraline is a masterpiece of animation, with wonders at every turn.

And all the while, it retains a sense of dread. Oh, yes: this is a frightening movie, and we expect it will terrify some of its viewers. But then some of us were children when The Secret of Nimh was released, and any trauma we experienced only left us stronger.

The tone of Coraline is controlled with the precision of a master, as is the movement and design. This is a movie well worth seeking out.

No film is without flaws, though, and this has a few. The most severe being the film's conclusion, which tries to walk a tightrope between family friendly and horror, and, in the end, cannot find a satisfying finale. But then this is not a movie which relies on its closing moments; this is an experience.

And, for the first time in a few years, we wonder if Pixar will be able to claim the Academy Award. Of course we await the release of Up this summer to find out, but Coraline offers true competition: something Pixar has long been without.

Yet, in the long term, it is not Pixar Coraline will need to contend with. No, fans will hold it against Nightmare Before Christmas, and we expect many will find it lacking. For all its merits, Coraline is a more personal story, and the fanbase - at least in our experience - will favor the operatic qualities of Nightmare.

But that is not a problem with the picture at all. The Nightmare Before Christmas will remain one of our favorite movies, a five star example of what stop motion can do with a dark fantasy.
We hold Coraline beside it, however, and do not find it wanting.

For the first time, The Middle Room is pleased to bestow a five star rating on a film. Go see Coraline now. And see it in 3D.


Bob Flynn said...

I pretty much agree with everything you have to say. I was VERY impressed, and I watch a lot of animation. The story was solid too, which only enhanced the film-making. By the way, where'd you get the cat figurine?

Erin Snyder said...

The cat was an accessory from a Nightmare Before Christmas Sally that came out about 5 years ago. She also came with a basket (with cloth), wine bottle, salt and pepper shakers, slotted spoon, a jar of deadly nightshade, a 'cat-in-the-box', and a pumpkin.

The mailbox, on the other hand, is part of the base to a "Frank the Bunny" figure.