Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Toon-arama: Coraline (2009)

by tryanmax

The month of October is upon us, meaning it is time for ghost stories, trick-or-treats, and horror movies! And, yes, there are even a few scary cartoons to be seen. Among them, the stop-animation film Coraline is perhaps one of the most authentic animated horror films, meaning it actually aims to frighten rather than simply borrowing horror elements to place in a comic or adventure setting. The film’s themes and events are remarkably mature and sufficiently disturbing to rank well within the genre. Additionally, the film is a feast for the eyes with the traits of a Halloween classic.

** spoiler alert **

The story begins typically enough with our heroine and her family moving into a new home, a dilapidated old Victorian conversion called the Pink Palace Apartments. It is evident that this was a move of necessity, and Coraline finds everything about her new surroundings completely dismal. It doesn’t help that her parents, both writers, are too wrapped up in their work to pay her much attention. Worse, the only other kid around is the landlady’s grandson, a strange boy named Wybie who Coraline finds instantly annoying.
Left with nothing to do, Coraline sets about exploring the old mansion. She discovers a small door that has been papered over. She uncovers and opens it, but is disappointed to find that it has been bricked up. That night, Coraline dreams that she follows a mouse to the doorway, but instead of it being bricked up, it opens on a tunnel leading to an identical door in an identical house. In fact, everything from the real world is duplicated in this “other” place, even the people except here, everything and everyone is vibrant and cheerful. Even her “other mother” and “other father” are there and they are far more attentive to Coraline.
So, night after night Coraline returns to the dream world, and day after day the real world seems duller and duller. As she encounters the apartment’s other odd tenants by day, they each make appearances in the other world by night. Every aspect of the other world seems made especially to please Coraline, but it isn’t until she finds a way through the door without first falling asleep that she discovers the sinister nature of her other mother. Coraline can stay with her other family in the other world for forever, but she must agree to have buttons sewn over her eyes.
With the dream now twisted into nightmare, Coraline learns to her horror that she can no longer simply wake up!

The premise is built upon some pretty well-heeled horror tropes but the story is nonetheless strong. The idea of wishing for “better” parents is something everyone who has been a child can relate to, and the lesson of being careful what one wishes for is timeless, to be sure. The story has a better share of twists and surprises than the average live-action horror which would more likely rely on pop-scares. None of those here. Rather, the viewer is treated to a nicely layered narrative with just enough weirdness to keep the mood always a bit unsettled.

Among the strong suits of the script is the rather limited cast. Stop-motion in general seems prone to teeming with all manner and shape of characters, but this rather intimate collection of individuals feels close like a blanket. (Recommended for late-night viewing, by the way.) Neither is the story weighed-down by awkward explanations. There are some plausible hints and conjecture among the characters as to what motivates the other mother, but the uncertainty about her actions makes her seem more real and, thus, more threatening. This also keeps the pacing crisp and the dialogue relevant to the action.
Still, none of this would be particularly remarkable if it weren’t for the sheer splendor of the film itself. This is no Ranklin-Bass production, and the level of detail and effect outstrips the visually comparable The Nightmare Before Christmas. According to the DVD extras, the miniature sweaters were hand knitted using wire-thin knitting needles, and all other aspects of production were equally painstaking. To put it mildly, it pays off onscreen. There is, of course, a notable stop-motion quality to the movement of everything though it is much more fluid than what is typical and, frankly, the distinct “twitchiness” is part of the technique’s charm.

Moreover, it is through visuals that the film achieves most of its impact. The story takes place in two worlds that are distinguished primarily through light and color. However, the dreary days don’t always contrast so sharply against the clear nights. Acrobatic action sequences defy one to believe that these are mere puppets on screen. As the story turns dark, their twisted forms and macabre movements become increasingly disturbing. Finally, the films iconic visual, the doll-like black button eyes on seemingly human characters is not only unsettling in itself, but it also displays a degree of self-awareness from the picture that makes the message seem all the more direct.

Fear not, though enjoyable to adults the film is built for a juvenile audience so it won’t send you ducking under the covers. On the other hand, it might have you looking twice at toy dolls to see if those button eyes are looking back at you.

41 comments:

K said...

Excellent review, Andrew. I would add that the supporting characters are unique and fun and the unconventional soundtrack adds to the creepy dreamlike atmosphere. The fact that Tim Burton, who often has some kind of political or religious subtext in his films, had nothing to do with it was a boon IMO.

Patriot said...

Andrew.......sounds like a good "lesson" movie to watch with the grandkids as we get closer to winter. Is it a movie that would be appropriate with small kids?

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Did you write this review or did tryanmax? If it was the latter, then the byline is missing.

I still haven't seen this film but I have friends who enjoy it very much. And despite my previous cynical comments about "kids today," it's nice to know a stop-motion animated film like this can still bring 'em in.


K -

Respectfully, with one or two possible exceptions (and even those are much ado about nothing), I can't think of anything religiously or politically offensive in a Tim Burton film. In fact, he might be one of the last politically neutral filmmakers we have, whose sole goal is to entertain (though he does appear to be on auto-pilot nowadays).

AndrewPrice said...

Sorry folks, I forgot the byline. This was written by tryanmax. :)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Excellent review. I have not seen this, but I should watch it. I remember the advertisements and they didn't entice me for some reason -- possibly because Corpse Bride let me cold for this type of claymation... seemed to "standard Burton"? I do recall critics raving though, and it sounds like I'm missing an interesting film

T-Rav said...

Nice review, tryanmax! I got a distinctly weird vibe from the advertisements for this movie--they weren't so much scary as kinda creepy. Interesting premise, from the sound of it; of course, the best horror movies (in my opinion) are the ones which screw with reality.

DUQ said...

I saw this and enjoyed it very much. Nice review Mr. Max! :)

rlaWTX said...

I don't even remember hearing about this one... sounds interesting.

OT (sorry,t): I now have clients until 9pm, so I really hope that there will be a wrap-up on the debates tomorrow!!! (hint-hint)
[as much as I love reading any "open thread" comments, they aren't exactly informational :)]
TTFN!

LawHawkRFD said...

tryanmax: I generally don't watch this kind of animation film, but it sounds interesting. I might rent it for the grandkids and watch it with them. What ages would you consider it appropriate for?

tryanmax said...

K, thanks! Like any good film, this just has far too much to possibly include all in one article. The supporting characters are certainly less "marketable" than most, likely the primary reason they seem so unique--especially in juveneille fare. I didn't mention the music so as to avoid confusion that this was a musical, but yes, it is very good. I believe it won an Annie Award, though my favorite is "The Other Father Song" written and performed by They Might Be Giants' John Linnell. Originally, TMBG was slated to provide the entire soundtrack, but durring production they decided to take a darker tone and to make it straight rather than a musical. I struggle to imagine what the original concept must have been!

wahsatchmo said...

Great review tyranmax. I really enjoyed Coraline, though it might be somewhat spooky for the very young.

I'm also glad Tim Burton was not involved; his ego tends to bleed through onto the screen, especially in his newer movies. Coraline's author, Neil Gaiman, was called upon to advise on the film and has an excellent working relationship with Henry Selick, the director (who also did Nightmare Before Christmas.)

I'm a fan of Gaiman, and he tends to be very understanding about the changes directors need to make to bring his writing to the screen, and in turn the directors and screenwriters seek his input in the process. The end result is usually pretty good (though I've never seen Stardust).

He's got another adaptation coming up of his children's story The Graveyard Book. Same director as Coraline, so it will probably be stop motion again. It's a great little story, too.

The guy's been pretty busy, considering that another of his books, American Gods is also slated for a movie (this one will probably be live action), and then he recently wrote an episode for the new Dr. Who.

It's a lot of fun to compare Gaiman's approach to movie adaptations of his works to Alan Moore's approach. Alan Moore insists that no one can or should adapt his writing to the screen, though damned if they don't keep trying. He doesn't have much of a choice though, considering he won't own the rights to V for Vendetta or Watchman until they stop being published, which at this point may not happen in his lifetime.

tryanmax said...

Patriot, the film carries a PG rating and I would rate the scare-factor on par with The Nightmare Before Christmas. My 3-year-old son is scared by it, but he is also scared of Pinkey the Safety Elephant (a costume character who shows up at outdoor festivals). My 4-year-old daughter, on the other hand, loves it. It's a good lesson that isn't heavy handed. Definitely a good springboard for conversation.

tryanmax said...

Scott, this film is a must-see. Stop motion features are always a novelty, but this one is very much above. There are some CG credits on the film, but it's my understanding that the overall production was something like 98% practical.

I agree with all your sentiments about Burton. I haven't seen Frankenweenie yet, so I remain cautiously optimistic.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, no problem so long as it doesn't affect my pay! ;) Gladly, the only Burton connection this film has is Henry Selick as director. Corpse Bride was a bit of a low-light for Burton. IMO, it was specifically engineered to appeal to Burton's established fan base and thus lacked any heart whatsoever.

tryanmax said...

T-Rav, weird is a good way to describe this movie. Accuracy in film marketing, who knew?

tryanmax said...

DUQ, thank you very much.

tryanmax said...

rlaWTX, quite alright. I'm sure the debates are front of mind for all Commentarmans right now. I know they are for me. Be sure to put the movie on your watch list, though. Now is the time!

tryanmax said...

Lawhawk, I can only tell you what I told Patriot. I'm sure you know that every kid is different. Overall, it's pretty mild, but the Other Mother does take on a scary appearance toward the end, which could be a bit much for very small ones.

tryanmax said...

wahsatchmo, it sounds like you've done your homework! It's pretty self-evident that the film had a lot of cooperation behind putting it together. The scale is most impressive. Certainly not something that could have been pulled off by warring parties.

AndrewPrice said...

Man, you step away for a minute and this place fills with comments!

LOL! No, don't worry about your pay. It will remain the same. ;)

Tennessee Jed said...

Max - thanks for this one. I had never even heard of this one, nor even realized such a genre existed. Great job!

wahsatchmo said...

If you're willing to try something a little more off the wall and with a much lower budget, Mirrormask was pretty interesting. It's another Neil Gaiman story, but it was directed by the artist of his well-known graphic novels Sandman, Dave McKean.

McKean has an instantly recognizable style, and you can certainly feel it in this film. It's a mix of live action and graphical elements again used to create a unique other world.

It's not as rich as Coraline or as well adapted, but it's a fun diversion that's a little out of the normal fare.

T-Rav said...

Wait a minute, I didn't get paid for any of my articles! Exploitation!!!

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, tryanmax is slightly exaggerating the slave wages we pay. You received a similar check, only his had more zeroes on it to make the number appear larger. :)

tryanmax said...

TJ, glad to be of service!

tryanmax said...

wahsatchmo, I located a preview for that online. It looks interesting. I'll put it on my list!

tryanmax said...

T-Rav, I like to think of it as tryanmaxploitation. It's the second-longest word after supercalafragalisticexpialadocious. But it's not as fun to sing.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, I will be counting every one of those zeros. Just knowing you took the time to write them means the world to me!

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I assure you that each of those zeroes was heartfelt. LOL!

Individualist said...

Great Review Tyranmax

I missed this movie...

tryanmax said...

Indie, you don't know the half of it. ;-)

K said...

ScottDS: I can't think of anything religiously or politically offensive in a Tim Burton film.

I suspect the two instances you might recall would be the rabid religious nut Christian antagonist in "Edward Scissorhands" and the rabid religious nut Christian in "Sleepy Hollow" who tortured his wife to death for witchcraft. (Loved the scene with the torture chamber in the back room of the church.) I think that pretty much sets up Burton's cinematic take on Christianity. The latter movie was done for Disney while Eisner and company were battling the Southern Baptist boycott over gay pardner rights - so one in the face for the God botherers. Burton has steered clear of the present Christian bashing over gay marriage, I believe. He did, however, set the precedent.

A minor quibble for "Mars Attacks". Every single character is some kind of nasty obnoxious stereotype who dies - except the caring slacker, the new ager, the Muslim and the goth.

I did enjoy Pee Wee's Big Adventure and The Nightmare Before Christmas though.

tryanmax said...

K, in defense of Burton, his style deals in stereotypes and archetypes. He is able to develop his stories more by skipping character development with accessible tropes.

In all honesty, I think your Mars Attacks argument is the strongest of the three. The other two are organic to the periods and settings of the respective films. The fact is that there are villainous people who claim Christianity. Besides, the characters you name are so incidental, I doubt Burton ever considered them capable of painting a particular picture of Christianity.

tryanmax said...

As to the activities of Eisner et al, coincidence does not equal causation.

K said...

tryanmax: Personally, I can't see where either character or scene is incidental. In Scissorhands, a turning point in the story - the protagonist's expulsion from society - is instigated by the Christian nutjob. Remove that character from the script and the story doesn't make sense.

In SH, the mother's torture death by the father is shown as a big reveal - a key component to the protagonist's makeup. In addition it's a big part of the "society moving from 18th century cruel ignorance to nineteenth century loving modernity" subtext of the film. The same type of argument being used for gay rights. If it were not important, why include it in the story - which was too long already?

I should mention here that gay marriage is fine by me, as long as it doesn't require government power over religion. What really annoys me is product placement ads for atheism - or in this case, Wicca.

Yes, coincidence does not necessarily equal causation, but if someone's boot coincidentally meets your backside, it's usually a good idea to look into the matter more deeply. :)

tryanmax said...

I guess by "incidental" I mean that the fact that the characters in question identify as "Christians" is organic to each. The important character trait is their religious zealotry and the "Christian" label is incidental. There is nothing that makes that trait seem shoehorned just to get a dig in. To the contrary, given the periods and settings, if another religion had been portrayed that would have seemed shoehorned.

AndrewPrice said...

I agree that the Christianity of the character was incidental in Edward Scissorhands. They needed a flake and that happened to be the easiest flake to use. And I definitely agree that making them in a Muslim or Buddhist or something would have been bizarre.

K said...

Andrew: Why not a standard garden variety paranoid type flake? Why would a Christian, per se, object to a hair dresser with scissors for hands? I mean aside from the leather drag?

tryanmax: Thanks for the clarification, but I still don't see why a religious zealot of any persuasion would be incorporated into the story. It's pretty rare in detective stories to find out why the detective wants to be a detective. Al Capp wrote that no cartoonist ever drew a picture of a dog at a fire hydrant without making a comment on the state of dogs in the world. I'm standing by my opinion that Burton's concept of Christianity is pretty dismal and it shows up in his work even when the subject isn't religious.

tryanmax said...

K, I can see you aren't to be dissuaded of your position. I simply fail to see Burton's character criticisms as being any more broad or personal than what is depicted on screen.

AndrewPrice said...

K, Because there are a lot of Christian groups -- especially in the 1990s -- who went around trying to get everything they possibly could banned. They protested at libraries to get books or art exhibits removed, they went to war with the music industry, they tried to shut down "sin" businesses. They are the classic busy-body group. So using them makes sense.

Not to mention, why would anyone listen to a lone nut? But people will listen to someone claiming to speak on behalf of their religion. So it makes it easier to believe people will follow the flake.

K said...

tryanmax: What would persuade me would be examples in Burton's oeuvre where any kind of traditional religion is shown as something to be venerated or a positive force in the world. I mean besides Goth and Wicca. Then I could believe that picking on Christianity was just a story element and not an agenda.

Andrew: Uh, doesn't that prove my point? If you'd like to see a movie where liberal principles are upheld while not bashing religion, I recommend "People Will Talk" with Cary Grant. Margaret Hamilton and Hume Cronyn play characters who incite an investigation of the protagonist - a mechanism which could have easily been used in ES.

But if what you say is true, then I eagerly await Burton's future directorial bashing of the censorship of the ACLU, the NAACP, the PC academy and the California harassment laws.

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