FEBRUARY 14, 2009
I've never quite decided if I love Nightmare Before Christmas or not. I love the animation, most of the songs... but I get bored with it after Jack returns from Christmas Town. From then on I find myself just looking at the various details and wondering how much of a pain it must have been to pull them off. Luckily, Coraline (which, for those who are still confused, is directed by Henry Selick, NOT Tim Burton who everyone thinks directed Nightmare when it was really Selick) improves in this department, and I have my shitty memory to thank.
See, I usually get disengaged when I see a movie based on a book that I have read. I know all the story beats, I know how it ends, and I'm also noticing all of the "missing" things. Which is why I am a supporter of seeing the movie first. In 99% of the cases, the book will be better, so you can see the movie, enjoy it, and then read the book and enjoy it more (as opposed to seeing the movie 2nd and complaining about all of those "missing" things). But I read Neil Gaiman's "Coraline" five years and probably a hundred books ago, so I couldn't really remember much about it beyond the basic plot: girl in a house, mirror reality, usual sort of "You already have everything you need and need some sort of crazy scary experience to make you realize it" message, etc. I didn't even remember anything about the buttons.
And that's what makes the movie such an enjoyable experience. I felt like I was experiencing the story for the first time, even when memories began to resurface. The 3D/animation is a big part of that - not only is it the best 3D design I've ever seen in a film (with only ONE goofy "comin AT YA!" moment), but the stop motion animation is exquisite, making Nightmare (and certainly something like Chicken Run) pale in comparison. At times I thought for sure I was watching CGI, but it's ALL hand-made stop motion (with CG enhancement for certain "effects" that can't be done with puppets and giant miniature sets). They've really outdone themselves here; even when the movie got slightly dull (at 1:40, it's the longest stop motion movie ever - some stuff could be tightened) I was always compelled and fascinated by the work on display.
One thing I really dug was the "vanishing" world idea. At one point Coraline runs away and the world sort of loops back on itself, as it only exists as far as the Other Mother designed it for Coraline's sake. It's a pretty abstract concept, but Selick and his crew pull it off beautifully - it didn't even need to be explained in dialogue.
The music is also wonderful, and sort of creepy. There are no songs (other than a They Might Be Giants tune), just a score with occasional chorus, and it fits the look of the film exceptionally well. Speaking of the creepiness, some of you might wonder if this is technically a horror movie. Rest assured, I polled readers via Facebook and Twitter and everyone that answered said yes. Plus the finale features a half spider half woman (voiced by Teri Hatcher, MILFiest MILF of all time) trying to kill a little girl and/or pluck her eyes out and replace them with buttons. That's scarier than anything in Friday the 13th. It's not as Gothic as Nightmare, but it's certainly in the same vein.
I also enjoyed the inspired choices for doing the voices. Dakota Fanning was sort of obvious, but John Hodgman as the dad is a stroke of brilliance. You know him as "PC" in those increasingly unfunny ads, but you SHOULD know him from his book "Areas Of My Expertise", which is a 'complete' compendium of world knowledge. The chapter where he goes to the Mall of America is worth the price alone (you can also get an audio version, which is actually longer). Selick also got Keith David, he of the commanding, gravelly, trailer-worthy voice, to play a cat. Awesome. Ian McShane is also on hand as Bobinsky, a circus ringleader guy of some sort. With Dreamworks (and even Pixar a bit) focusing on A-list names to do the voices for their films, it's nice to see one with actors who simply have great voices and can bring something to the character, rather than hire a Will Smith or Angelina Jolie and then design the character around them.
I hope you get to see it in 3D; it really immerses you into the film in a way I've never seen. It didn't feel like a gimmick at all, it really felt like it was part of the storytelling and design of the film as a whole, to the extent that I feel 2D would be sort of defeating the purpose of the film (as opposed to say, Beowulf, in which the 3D can be removed entirely and it wouldn't make a goddamn difference at all). For those wondering, it's most certainly NOT the red n blue migraine inducers, but the gray and grayer kind that is becoming increasingly common. With so many 3D films on the way (Monsters and Aliens, Up, Piranha), I wouldn't be surprised if people didn't start selling "designer" versions of the damn things. Either way, I hope more films take Coraline's approach and use the 3D to help tell the story, not just toss it in to entice folks to go to the theaters rather than download the movie.
What say you?