24 February 2009

Coraline 3D

Coraline 3D (2009)
Directed by Henry Selick. Featuring the Voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Keith David, Ian McShane.

When I was in second grade, I loved making dioramas out of discarded shoeboxes. I first did one as a school assignment, but I loved the art of crafting these scenes from clay, construction paper, and dollops of Elmer’s Glue so much that I started to make my own as a hobby—probably my first creative hobby ever. My favorite type of dioramas was the “peep-hole” style, where you had to look through a small hole cut in the width-end of the shoebox to see the scene, and light filtered in through a hole cut in the top of the box, covered over with cellophane or a piece of thin, colored paper to give the scene a hazy, shaded appearance. I loved how otherworldly my cityscapes cut from paper and lined up rank after rank would look: my first experience with the tricks of perspective and the artificial manipulation of depth—as well as the concept of mise-en-scene.

The new 3D stop-motion animated film Coraline feels exactly like those old dioramas. That makes it the best use of 3D I’ve ever seen in a feature film.

3D filmmaking was a fad in the 1950s, and then for a brief period in the early ‘80s, thanks to the success of an awful gimmick Italian Western called Comin’ at Ya! (I would love to review that movie for you, but in order to get the 3D effect, you have to buy the DVD, not just rent it through Netflix—no thanks.) But 3D, through the popular RealD process, has turned endemic in current filmmaking, with a consistent stream of movies released with those funky polarized glasses included. But Coraline is the first 3D film I’ve seen that uses the dimensional possibilities as part of its fabric, and not as a gag to throw objects at the camera. Planned from its inception as a 3D project, Coraline‘s effect rests on the way the 3D gives it the feeling of true puppetry, watching a dollhouse come to life as you peer through the ceiling. It’s the modern version of the Victorian “Toy Theater,” and it’s a marvel to behold.

And the story holds up as well, not something I could say about director Henry Selick’s previous two projects, James and the Giant Peach and Monkeybone, where it seems his dramatic instincts failed him and left the movies floundering on the dirt. Selick got his initial fame from directing Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas, but that had Tim Burton’s stamp and guidance all over it—even in the title. Selick’s two failed films afterwards didn’t bode well for him as a solo-act, but with Coraline, I take back all my doubts. Selick has found his own dark-fantasy zeitgeist, or at least found the perfect material in Neil Gaiman’s wonderful fairy-story and horror tale about the worst chilhood nightmare you could imagine.

Gaiman’s story mixes the Roald Dahl “resourceful child in a dark world of careless and cruel adults” with the primal fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. And maybe a bit of Being John Malkovich; when Coraline discovers the tiny door hidden behind a cabinet, I immediately wondered if she had found the way into John Malkovich’s head.

Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) is an imaginative but prickly girl who hates her new life in a dreary gray Victorian mansion with her negligent parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), who are both more focused on a start-up gardening project—which looks as dreary an affair as the house—than their daughter. The mansion is subdivided into other apartments, containing a cracked circus-mouse trainer, Mr. Bobinksy (Ian McShane), and two flabby former cabaret actresses (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) who like to embalm their dead Scottish terriers and attach angel wings onto them. There’s a boy Coraline’s age who lives nearby, Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), but his grandmother won’t allow him into the house where her sister supposedly vanished; Coraline finds Wybie exasperating and “icky” anyway. Just like everything else around her. Wybie’s cat companion, however, seems to know more than a feline should.

Then Coraline finds the secret door, and enters an alternate universe to meet her “Other Mother and Father.” It’s a mirror of her real world that’s full of color and fun, and where Wybie can’t talk. And for some reason, everyone has buttons for eyes. It’s this creepy touch that tells viewers that everything in the Otherworld might be too good to be true. And it is. The cat, who finds his voice in the alternate world (and fortunately for him it’s the deep tones of Keith David), tries to warn Coraline about the dangers of the “Perfect World” before it turns Perfectly Ghastly.

And ghastly it does turn… Coraline isn’t for young children. It will give them nightmares for months. The theme of the loss of parents is potent enough; combine that with hallucinogenic images of everything a child might experience in a fever dream, and consider yourself sternly warned about taking anyone under eight years old to see this. The 3D imagery won’t calm them either. The more horrific the story turns, the more vividly and grotesquely alive the screen becomes. Children eight and over, however, should love the movie as well as the adults, and enjoy watching Coraline grow as she takes on the evil of the Otherworld to rescue her real parents—who no longer seem so bad.

Among the sequences that make optimum use of the RealD depth are a dance number with circus mice, a trapeze performance, the flowering of a remarkable garden (and its later demoltion by a robo-mantis), and the intensely freaky finale with spider-webs, flying wood shards, and the clinking needle-sharp mechanical hands of the monster at the core of the nightmare. But even so simple a shot as a paper tunnel stretching out in front of Coraline has magic dimensionality to it—all achieved with minimum “boo! hah!” trickery. (Okay, there’s a gag with a sewing needle… but it appeared in the trailer and I think it was designed solely to grab potential viewers.)

With such a rut of CGI animated movies today, and only Pixar turning out the quality, it’s refreshing to see stop-motion animation, where the hand of humans is more evident in the production. That the story fits the design so well is certainly a plus. The stop-motion technology (which does get some CGI aid) is the most flawless I’ve ever seen.

Final conclusion: We’ve got ourselves a new Halloween classic, and the film to beat in the 3D stakes.

The trailers with the film include two upcoming CGI animated films shot in RealD: Monsters vs. Aliens and Up. I must admit that Monsters vs. Aliens looks diverting—certainly more promising than the majority of computer-animated movies, and it is the first CGI 3D film shot specifically for the format, instead of converted to it afterwards. But Up is a Pixar film. ‘Nuff said.