PLOT: Newly relocated Coraline discovers that when she dreams in her new home, she enters a bright, fantastical parallel existence that offers many more delights than her bland reality (including friendlier, more attentive parents). But is this colorful world all it's cracked up to be? Is it even really a dream?
REVIEW: CORALINE is a melding of two distinguishable yet perfectly matched visionary talents: Author Neil Gaiman and director Henry Selick. Both are beloved by many (Selick for his ground-breaking feature THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS; Gaiman for his haunting literary works, such as the SANDMAN series and AMERICAN GODS) and have achieved impressive success in unconventional genres. Thanks to the two of them (as well as a slew of skilled technicians), we get CORALINE, a peppy, clever and often thrilling work that - dare I say it - will please the open-minded kid in all of us.
Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is an 11-year old tomboy, recently moved into a towering boarding house with her workaholic mother and goofy father. Neither have much time for their spunky daughter, and soon her only company is a rascally and talkative boy (ewwww!) named Wybie and a creepy doll with buttons doubling as eyes. Of course, Coraline's best friend - she'll soon find out - is her imagination - Late one night, she wakes (?) to see a mouse in her room, which she follows downstairs into the livingroom. There she discovers a small door hidden underneath the wallpaper. Following the mouse through the door, Coraline enters a wild, vivid, and altogether more pleasing version of her world, complete with delightful folks willing to serve her any food she wants, and a version of Wybie who keeps his mouth shut. It seems too good to be true... In twisted fantasy movies like this one, there's usually a reason for that.
The early scenes drag just a tad, which feel the need to fully communicate Coraline's boredom - it's not necessary to actually show her puttering around the house. We're also introduced to Coraline's Eccentric (yes, with a capital E) neighbors. There's Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, two aging and overweight British actresses who fuss and argue with each other (amidst their dozens of stuffed dogs). Then there's Mr. Bobinsky (voiced by the great Ian McShane), a Russian acrobat who trains circus mice. These characters provide some tame wackiness that simply pads the running time; it's their "other" versions that grab our attention.
But so it goes for CORALINE, which is truly alive when in this alternate reality - technically, and in spirit. The scenes with Coraline's "Other" parents carry with them a whimsically sinister vibe; even when Coraline is getting comfortable in her new surroundings, things just don't seem quite "right". Her parents are too nice, the garden a little too charming. Wybie's refusal to talk a little too odd... Bruno Coulais' score - which is certainly more than a little reminiscent of Danny Elfman in Burton-mode - nicely conveys the underlying eeriness of these scenes; like everything else, there's something deviously counterfeit about its lightheartedness.
Ultimately, Selick ramps up the tension when the Other Mother's real intentions become obvious: she needs a little girl to "love", maybe even to death. Her true form is an ugly, lanky witch with a snarling mouth and a venomous disposition. The Other Father and Wybie are just helpless pawns in her scheme, and the rooms in her house carry with them ghastly secrets. Selick isn't afraid of freaking out the little ones as we're presented with the ghosts of dead children, a robotic grasshopper monster, and objects of all kinds that spring to (nasty) life on their own. It's some seriously surreal stuff, and really young viewers are likely to get pretty scared...
The marriage of stop-motion animation and stereoscopic 3-D is a glorious one. Scenes that would seem neat in traditional 2-D form are given real depth; Selick and his team don't utilize 3-D just so things can pop out at you (although they do a few times, and it's fun of course). Here, Coraline's world (literally) comes alive, and is so rich with details and imagination that I have to contain the urge to gush. It's one of those ideal situations where you don't know where on the screen to look. (This is most especially true in the Other World's lush garden, filled with moving plants and flowers.) I can't say how the whole of CORALINE will work on DVD - but that's almost beside the point, because this is a picture meant to be seen in the theater. Do yourself a favor and check it out.