It may seem that children long to be unsupervised; to go to the fair, eat mountains of cotton candy, ride the rides until two in the morning and then throw up. But, in fact, they have a built-in meter for sugar shock. They know deep down that kids must not be in charge, that not having a mom or dad to cut the fun short, bathe them and put them to bed, is actually terrifying. "Pinocchio's" scene of the lost boys turning into donkeys isn't a moral; it's a primal fear.
"Coraline," the stop motion-animated film from director Henry Selick, of the splendid "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and the failed, bizarre "James and the Giant Peach," basing his film on the book by dark fantasist Neil Gaiman, knows how to bait a trap. The titular little girl leaves her preoccupied parents behind, passing through a tiny (Alice-like) door in their musty, empty house called "The Pink Palace," through a purplish and squishy birth canal (so many images here are fairy-tale-archetypical) into a world that's so perfect, it's deeply creepy. Comparisons with the grotesques of Gilliam (compare the staging of the Venus di Milo from "Munchausen") and del Toro (the rag-and-bone man beating on another little door) are hardly unfounded.
Presiding over this parallel universe is Coraline's self-described "Other Mother" (delicious when said out loud). She's as perky and moist-lipped as Donna Reed processed thorough "The Stepford Wives". But where expressive eyes should be, instead are sewed a pair of dead flat buttons. Coraline is invited to stay forever in this world, designed to flatter her ego, where circus mice from "Nutcracker" spell out her name, where the garden of pitcher plants (insects check in, but they don't check out) and actual snapping snapdragons is sculpted like her face. The price: she'll need those buttons sewed into her skull, too. "It's so sharp, you'll barely feel it," says her Other Father, before being kneed under the table.
Is "Coraline" intended for kids? Absolutely. Whereas pap like "Kung Fu Panda" is junk food for kids' minds, and passes through the system just as quickly, and with as little sustenance, "Coraline" is sui generis. It stirs the imagination in the way children desire and deserve, in the way of "Return to Oz" (Dorothy getting shock therapy!) and the incomparable "Babe: Pig in the City" (a strangling pit bull!).
Some of the images are straight out of a nightmare, and could be nightmare-inducing - especially the distorted, stretched faces at several points, and a monster made of two brittle doll-women twisted together - and very young or sensitive children might experience them as a shock. How about your kids? You know them, I don't. But in general, I'm with Tony Scott of the New York Times: "[Saying it's scary] is not a warning, but a recommendation, since the cultivation of fright can be one of the great pleasures of youthful movie going."
I will never fully understand the animator's personality. The concentration is obsessive; the attention to detail, migraine-inducing; the ability to accept that a good day's work yields only seconds of footage, and a single mistake makes even that un-useable. And on these points, stop motion even beggars traditional cel animation. It makes CG look like a slob job.
By the way, there is some CG in "Coraline" (so say the closing credits). There are challenges in miniature animation that have never been solved; liquids, you'll see this in Coraline's shower, have to be suggested by solids. I think CG was used to create a ground-covering mist, for example. As long as it blends and doesn't violate the world, all's fair.
Some movies play just as effectively from a worn-out VHS tape viewed on a black-and-white, nine inch television. Some movies rely on technology for full effect (not a weakness). "Coraline" was conceived from the ground up to be seen in 3D. Its compositions, its camera movement (or rather, almost complete lack of same), its editing rhythms, its colors - all of it, intended for 3D. Removing that depth perception alters our experience as profoundly as colorizing "Citizen Kane".
So next week, maybe I'll follow up with a review of "Coraline" in 3D. I don't love having anything (glasses) between me and my movie, and I'd rather have a film's depth suggested by its painterly qualities and the emotions it evokes. But 3D is as significant in its way as the move from black-and-white to color, or from the silents to the sound era. I'd bet ten bucks that not only will "Coraline" be a totally different experience, but that Henry Selick is the first director to get it right.