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Coraline (2009): ***½

Directed by Henry Selick

I liked this movie more than a lot of people I know. It has its problems, I'll freely admit—problems with pacing, structure, and voice acting. But it still managed to completely suck me into its beautiful, fantastical world. I saw it twice and paid the exorbitant 3D fee both times, so that should tell you something.

I should start of saying that I never read the Niel Gaiman book on which this movie is based. I still haven't, so I have nothing to judge this movie against other than itself.

You should by now know the basic story idea: a young-ish pre-teen moves into an apartment house with her mum and dad. She's rather petulant and snarky, and not too happy with her parents. I've heard some people be aghast at what "horrible" parents Coraline's real-world parents are, but to me they seemed pretty darned realistic. They exist, as most real people do, as their own characters and don't exist simply to serve Coraline. Their daughter is, in the beginning, rather bratty and unpleasant to be around, so I don't half blame them for shooing her out of their hair when they're busy. But still, they do feel kinda guilty about it at times. I've also heard some people were upset that Coraline was so unpleasant in the beginning of the movie. Well, if she starts out as a perfect angel of a daughter, then she doesn't have much room to grow, does she?

Anyhoo, Coraline discovers a door in the building that leads to some sort of alternate version of the house that has alternate "Other" versions of her parents as well as the other tenants in the house. Most of the movie involves her exploring the Real World and then exploring the same locations in the Other World. Everything in this Other World seems to be much better than back in the Real World. Note that I said, "seems." Coraline is at its heart a horror movie. It's very dark, and at times very nightmarish. Our heroine must somehow figure out the very, very bad secrets of this Other World or else very, very bad things are gonna happen. And maybe she'll also learn not to be so unappreciative of the Real World? Maybe.

Selick does some neat tricks in contrasting these two worlds. The colors in the Other World are much more vibrant and saturated than in the drab Real World. In the 3D version he made the Other World have much more depth of field and much more dynamic 3D, whereas the Real World seems much flatter.

Coraline has some of the best stop-motion animation I've ever seen. And I've seen quite a bit. Selick is the guy who directed Nightmare Before Christmas and James & the Giant Peach (as well as the sea life in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), so he knows what he's doing in this realm. But Coraline has sequences of astonishing skill, and great little character flourishes on most of the characters that make their movements distinct.

There are some problems with the pacing of the movie. The first two acts seem to be a little padded at times. It was mostly padded with very fascinating, quirky things, though, so I didn't mind very much. But then the third act seemed almost a little rushed to me, up until the climax, which was satisfyingly plotted.

The vocal performances start off really rocky, especially Dakota Fanning as Coraline. Her delivery in the opening scenes seemed weirdly stiff in a trying-too-hard kind of way, and the voice actor of Wybie is often guilty of overacting. But after the first 20 minutes or so the voice work seems to settle down and find its own groove. Either that or I just got used to it. On the other hand, the rest of the cast I thought was rather good, especially because they each had to play two different versions of the same characters with slight differences. Terri Hatcher's Other Mother is slightly sweeter than her Real Mother, but has a forced edge to it. John Hodgman's Other Father is more spaced-out and extroverted than his distracted, introverted Real Father.

The imagery, art direction, and modeling is all fantastic. Just off-the-charts incredible to look at. It seemed like there was almost always something cool to look at, and Selick wisely doesn't rush through those moments. There are several sequences where we simply watch, along with Coraline, some sort of fantastic visual feast. The musical score by Bruno Coulais is also terrific: haunting and dream-like, without the usual, obvious emotional cues that overwhelm the scores of kids' movies and horror movies. The music is much more insidious and works more subtly in the back of your mind, keeping you slightly uneasy about these whole proceedings.

What do I always say? I want movies to show me something I couldn't see in my real life, or I've never seen before. And I've never seen anything quite like Coraline. So help me, it sucked me in and I was lost in its wonderful, nightmarish spell.


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