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Old 07-17-2009, 08:00 AM

(Henry Selick, 2009)

The term "modern classic" gets tossed around a lot recently, and often times it's premature. Because in fact, it's extremely difficult to judge a movie's legacy in generations and years to come when judging it at the time it comes out. Looking back, many of the "classics" of today weren't even well-received at the time they came out, and certainly nobody thought their legacies would be as they are today – films like "It's A Wonderful Life", "Citizen Kane", "12 Angry Men" and up to "Blade Runner" and "Blue Velvet" to cite more recent examples weren't particularly well-received upon release, but now, more than fit the definition of classics. Thus, when a true classic is born, a film you just know will be timeless and last forever even upon the first viewing alone; it's a special and rare event. And Coraline is one of those films.

A big part of Coraline's inevitable and foreseeable future as a classic, staple of film is its timelessness. It's set in an obviously contemporary world, but many time-specific language, props or behavior patterns that prevent some movies from "aging well" are not present in Coraline. It's at once both modern and timeless. But I think a very big part of this timelessness is due to the technique used to create the film: stop-motion animation. The technique is familiar to most anyone who has ever had some play-dough and a camera when they were young, as discovering that by taking multiple pictures of an object and moving said object ever so slightly between pictures, one can very easily create an illusion of motion Thing is, there is a special quality about stop-motion animation specifically that really makes it so timeless. The other major animation techniques are extremely time-specific: CGI animation is very modern, while traditional hand-drawn animation draws up connotations to a slightly older and more, well, "traditional" method. But stop-motion animation is unique in that it really has endured throughout all of this long history of animation, both in the past with many TV productions and full-length movies (mostly from Europe) being made with the technique, and in the present with popular productions such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and the Wallace & Gromit films. Many times, when discussing stop-motion animation, the first two names that come to mind are Ray Harryhausen (who utilized the technique to great success in many live-action films from the 40's and right on through the 80's up to the advent of CGI technology) and Nick Park (the mastermind behind Aardman studios, Wallace & Gromit and pretty much every other contemporary stop-motion British production. But one name that should echo louder in the halls of the stop-motion legacy is none other than the director of this film, Henry Selick.

Selick belongs to the same generation of filmmakers as Tim Burton, John Lasseter and Brad Bird and yet is never quite considered as a "celebrity director" as they are, even though he's actually probably the most talented individual of the bunch. The classic stop-motion animated film and the one that effectively brought about the technique's modern renaissance, The Nightmare Before Christmas, is most often attributed to Tim Burton – for the most part rightfully so, as the look and design of the characters, sets and of the film itself are all fruits of his wildly imaginative mind. But the director of that film was actually Henry Selick, to whom the sleek, beautiful, incredibly impressive and almost otherworldly stop-motion look and feel of the film can be accredited. Selick further perfected his craft with an adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic, James and the Giant Peach, which was the first work in which his mark could be truly and substantially felt. And now, with Coraline, Selick has topped himself and delivered something truly special, with his now quite unique and individual mark stamped all over it. Looking at these three feature-length stop-motion films, one can very easily trace the development, progress and perfection of skill from film to film, so that by Coraline, Selick has managed to create such a monumental technical achievement in terms of the fluidity of the animation and the scale and scope of it all that one really can't help but wonder just how much patience and attention to detail a person can have.

And the animation is absolutely, unbelievably, unfathomably and indescribably beautiful. The character animation is perfected to a T – while in Nightmare, interchangeable mouths were noticeably used, in this film, Selick manages to animate the entire face – mouth, eyes, everything – not with interchangeable pieces but with what is probably entire interchangeable heads (although I recently saw a featurette on the internet that makes me think that interchangeable faces were used with CGI smoothing over the lines, but still, it looks great). And considering every possible configuration of facial expression and mouthing of words, that's a lot of heads. The film contains many hectic scenes in which many, many characters and objects are all moving at the same time, and sometimes soaring through the air, and it hurts my head just imagining what it must be like to animate such a sequence frame by frame, making the slightest and most delicate and specific adjustments between every exposure to create such fluid, unified motion. Another element that took me by a very pleasant surprise was the remarkable extent and wealth of camera movement throughout the film – with stop-motion animation, it's usually much easier to keep the camera stationary and move the characters around, because synchronizing character adjustments as well as camera position adjustments while keeping all the motion smooth and fluid is unimaginably difficult. And yet, almost every shot in the film contains some kind of camera movement, and for that almost more than anything Selick deserves all the praise in the world for his absolutely perfect technical craftwork.

But the technical animation itself is not the only element that lends this film its unique, beautiful look. Much credit must be given to the design team for creating some vivid, amazing, and beautiful set and character designs. It seems too easy to clump Selick’s work in the “Burtonesque” category, and indeed, Coraline is actually not very Burtonesque even though I have seen it labeled as such in various places and by certain people. Selick and his team manage to create a very unique look in the design that is really incomparable to the work of any other director. And of course, even though it is very much Selick’s work, one can’t discuss the film without at least mentioning its source material, behind which is none other than Neil Gaiman, one of the leading names in contemporary fantasy fiction. With his basic story, Gaiman takes some fantasy and fairy tale elements such as the evil mother, the whimsical supporting characters, the three tasks, and the rest but gives them a modern twist that makes these classic genre staples relevant and identifiable. Finally, I would also like to mention and praise the voice acting, which was quite distinctly excellent. Dakota Fanning in particular stands out, playing the protagonist’s everyday, modern young girl persona to perfection. Teri Hatcher as her (two) mothers is also effective, and the rest of the supporting cast including Ian McShane as a crazed acrobat from the Balkans, Keith David as a cunning-but-friendly cat, and the classic British comedy duo French and Saunders playing basically old, twisted versions of themselves all deliver priceless, spot-on and excellent voice work.

At the end of the day, the timelessness of a film is judged by how it is perceived 10, 20, 50 years down the line. Will it seem out-dated, or still relevant as ever? Will it still speak to people, or was it a circumstance of the audience of the time? Will people think that the film could be made better today, or does it stand the test of time from a technical standpoint? Well, I think that Coraline will be one such timeless classic, for the sole reason that as far as I was concerned, the film in its current state could have been made 20 years ago. Nothing in the movie seems particularly contemporarily-tied (except for maybe the cell phones, but that’s a minor detail), and the stop-motion animation technique has inherent timeless qualities in and of itself because it is a technique that has remained largely unchanged in its principles from its first uses and right up until today, as opposed to the great leaps and bounds made in traditional animation and more recently, in the CG kind. And with great and endearing characters, a strong and relevant plot that is thick and emotional and poignant, and some of the most stunningly beautiful and impressive animation I’ve seen in recent years, I definitely think that Coraline will be a movie for the ages.

RATING: 8/10.
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