January 18, 2010

MOVIES: Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009)

What a glorious movie this is, creepy and eerie and gorgeously animated.

Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is an annoying little girl, perpetually bored and complaining about something or other. To be fair, she does have some reasons to be frustrated; she's just moved away from all her friends into a rundown apartment building, and her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) are rather inattentive, constantly working at their computers.

So when Coraline finds a tunnel into another world, she's enchanted. The Other World is a slightly warped mirror of her own, but everything seems better. The Other Parents dote on her (and cook much better); the neighbors are entertaining delights instead of faded, drunken vaudevillians; the garden is a gorgeous, colorful delight instead of a barren, gray wasteland.

But gradually, it becomes clear that the Other World is not as warm and inviting as it seems; the Other Mother, in particularly, is revealed to be a sinister, demonic being who has been luring children into her world and stealing their souls for generations. Coraline finds herself struggling to escape (and to rescue her own parents) from this nightmare world.

The voice cast is excellent, and they aren't actors you'd expect to hear in this sort of movie. Hatcher is surprisingly effective as the evil Other Mother, and Hodgman drops his usual dithering, pompous intellectual shtick (it took me a few minutes to recognize his voice without it). The other tenants in the apartment building are played by Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, and Ian McShane (quite funny as a drunken, elderly ex-strongman who trains mice). Keith David is a standout as a mysterious cat who seems to be the only one who knows what's really going on; he's having a good year in animation, having also done fine work in The Princess and the Frog.

The stop-motion animation is gorgeous, and there are scenes of such intricacy that I can't imagine doing them in stop-motion -- a theater filled with a hundred or so terriers, the graying and disintegration of the Other World during the climactic battle. (Compare this with the clunky stop-motion of Fantastic Mr. Fox, and you'll realize just how bad that movie's animation really is.) Even simpler scenes, though, are done with great beauty; I loved, for instance, watching the unfolding of the tunnel to the Other World.

This is most emphatically not a movie for children; it's intensely scary and disturbing. From the opening credits, in which we watch a spidery, metallic hand disassemble a stuffed doll, it's clear that we're going into very creepy territory. But for older kids and grownups, this is a spectacularly good movie, a terrifying delight.

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