MOVIES: John Reviews “Coraline 3-D”

Coraline: Presented in 3-D at select theaters

Coraline: Presented in 3-D at select theaters

Having just read the original children’s book, two of my cohorts (Nerdinanutshell and MediasMaven) and I took advantage of our work-free Presidents’ Day by seeing the new Coraline movie in 3-D.  While it may not have been the most faithful adaptation in history, Coraline captured the essence of Gaiman’s story admirably well, and is easily the greatest 3-D film ever produced (then again, what’s its competition?  Monster House? Friday the 13th, Part 3? Captain EO?)  I’ll do my best to review this version of the story on its own at first, bringing in the book comparisons later.

The story of Coraline follows Coraline Jones, a plucky young girl with the heart of an explorer and inattentive (yet loving) parents.  She finds her family’s new home to be far more boring than their old one, and cares little for the only child her age in the neighborhood, an overly-talkative boy named Wybie.  Coraline soon finds something to be excited about when she discovers a tiny, forgotten door in a back corner of the drawing room that leads to a parallel version of her own world, complete with an “other” mother and father.  Coraline’s other mother provides her with everything she wishes she had in the real world, from delicious meals to a fantastic garden to exciting adventures involving the house’s other inhabitants (two actresses and a circus performer.)  Coraline becomes enamoured with this other world, and is ready to give up her real life altogether until the other mother tells her the one condition of her stay: Like everyone else in the other world, she must remove her eyes and sew black buttons in their place.  When Coraline refuses, the other mother becomes her adversary, and Coraline must use all her cunning and wits to escape and free her parents (as well as the souls of other children the other mother has devoured) from the clutches of the other mother.  Finally, Coraline and Wybie work together to put an end to the other mother’s evil ways forever, and everyone lives pleasantly (if slightly less interestingly) ever after.

There are many things that make Coraline a fantastic children’s movie, not the least of which is the incredibly imaginative stop-motion animation style of Henry Selick.  Coraline surpasses Selick’s previous stop-motion works (The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach) in terms of craftsmanship and technical sophistication, but nothing may ever match the sheer imaginative wonder that was NB4C.  Regardless, the story of Coraline is a perfect fit for Selick’s talents, and the story presented is more breathtaking for it.  The 3-D elements were quietly impressive, with no real “gags” designed specifically to take advantage of the medium.  Not every object was rendered in 3-D, and some of the effects were subtle, but the overall result was a far more immersive experience than a traditional screen could have provided. In other words, the premium associated with a 3-D screening was worth its money, something I can rarely say about such films.

Another area where Selick’s version of Coraline excels is in its voice casting.  Since actors of any description could be cast, Selick was free to pick people who played their characters wonderfully without regard to “screen presence.”  Dakota Fanning did a spectacular job bringing Coraline to life, and Terri Hatcher was able to perform brilliantly as both mother and other mother, a feat not every actress would be capable of.  John “I’m a PC” Hodgman brought an unprecedented amount of warmth and kindness to the roles of father/other father, and impressed me with his ability to sound so similar to the character’s other voice actor, John Linnell from They Might Be Giants.  NB4C fans who remember the drastic difference between Jack’s speaking and singing voices (performed by Chris Sarandon and Danny Elfman, respectively) will be pleasantly surprised to see how much Selick’s voice casting has improved. Finally, the casting of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders (the british comedy duo behind Absolutely Fabulous and many other series) as Misses Spink and Forcible was absolutely inspired.  French and Saunders squeezed far more personality into these minor characters than I had expected, and their stage performance is easily the most memorable (and possibly most traumatizing, but more on that later) scene in the film.

Coraline is not a perfect film, however, and suffered from several strange creative choices in adaptation.  The most bizarre of these is the aforementioned performance by Misses Spink and Forcible, where each are wearing attire that has no place in a children’s movie (even if they are based on legendary paintings such as The Birth of Venus.)   No actual nudity is shown, and the outfits are revealed to be flesh-colored fat suits before the performance is concluded, but some parents may still be quite upset.  For what it’s worth, I found the scene to be riotously funny (and so did the children in the theater, if their peals of laughter were any indication.)

The biggest change to the story of Coraline is not nearly as likely to raise the ire of parents, though, even if it brings the story’s feminist “cred” down several notches.  The Powers That Be decided that Coraline needed another character, presumably to make the movie more appealing to young boys.  Enter Wybie, a BMX-riding, slug-hunting, awkward-around-girls friend who saves the day when Coraline is incapable of doing so on her own.  Wybie is responsible for advancing the plot at several key points throughout the film, such as providing Coraline with the doll that the other mother uses to lure her in, introducing her to his cat (who was ownerless in the book),  explaining the house’s history of child abductions as told to him by his grandmother, and saving Coraline from the other mother’s final attempt to capture and kill her.  This last intervention is particularly upsetting, as Coraline’s clever trap for the other mother at the end of the book demonstrated how much of a force to be reckoned with she truly is.  Remove that, and she’s just another ditzy female character who needs a man to save her from harm (and whatever plan she may have had makes less sense as a result.)  Wybie’s not a particularly bad character as additions go, but he seems completely superfluous and his presence (especially the presence of the mute “other wybie” in the other world) causes scenes to make less sense than they had in the book.  I can’t help wondering whether or not his name (supposedly short for “Why were you born”) is intended to reflect his lack of importance.

Wybie, the latest addition to the Coraline cast.

Wybie, the latest addition to the Coraline cast.

Even more unfortunate than Selick’s additions to Coraline is the element he removed before production: A musical soundtrack by They Might Be Giants.  Selick supposedly rejected all but one of the TMBG songs on the grounds that they were not “creepy” enough, which is a shame, since the one song to make the final cut was actually my favorite part of the movie.  Through the glory of YouTube, I present it to you now:

Based solely on that 28-second song, I am convinced that They Might Be Giants understood the story of Coraline extremely well and could have added a very interesting perspective to the film.  I can only hope that they will be allowed to record and release the rest of the songs at some point in the future.

While it may have been forced to aquiesce to studio demands and make the film more “audience-friendly,” Coraline stays remarkably true the vision and spirit of Gaiman’s novel.  This movie was clearly a labor of love by those involved, and that enthusiasm is shown in every remarkably breathtaking scene.  It may not topple NB4C’s reign as King of the Stop-Motion Film Genre, but it will hopefully be enjoyed by generations of parents and children to come.

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2 Responses

  1. I didn’t have a problem with Original Wybie, but once he turned mute, he seemed superfluous. I was also losing interest at that point whenever he came on screen, since he had nothing to do but shake his head.

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