Coraline isn’t an especially original story, in some respects. Literature and film is filled with tales of children who escape the drudgery and heartache of their lives by throwing themselves into fantastical worlds, worlds that may or may not exist only in their imaginations. Just a couple years ago, Guillermo Del Toro achieved new levels of acclaim with just such a film. Even Neil Gaiman, author of the original novella which serves as the basis for this new film, signed his name to another flickering spectacle with a striking resemblance to this one at a relatively recent point in pop culture time. But then, what truly sets apart any story with fairy tale trappings isn’t the novel nature of the plot details, but the vibrancy of the telling.
And that brings us to Henry Selick.
Decidedly under-heralded for directing The Nightmare Before Christmas fifteen years ago, Selick has persisted in his devotion to stop-motion animation, a time-consuming approach that effectively eliminates the word “prolific” from any assessments of his career. It can also make finding the right material a greater challenge. With Coraline, Selick has found a story perfectly suited to his methodology. He can let his imagination churn and bustle as the title character explores the inverted world of alluring pleasures she finds down a pathway hidden behind a strange, short door in the wall, and the similarly wild denizens of the rambling apartment house she’s stuck in with her parents. Not every fanciful flight works equally well, and the decision to make some of the characters in the “real world” incredibly stylized (the boisterous circus magnate voiced by Ian McShane looks like a Blue Meanie on an fruitful fitness plan) undercuts the impact of zipping between realities. Even if certain elements aren’t gelling, Selick fills the frame with giddy, alluring imagery, taking full advantage of his capability to bend the world any which way he cares to.
He also takes full advantage of another technology at his disposal. With the new version of the old 3-D movie trick, Selick enhances his already vivid landscapes. He seems to have thought through how to use the technology to his advantage. While there’s some tomfoolery with bits springing out of the screen, Selick concentrates on ways to add depth, whether it’s a telescoping passageway or a bending spiderweb trap. Like everything else he does with his storytelling, from the telling details he builds into every scene to the thoughtful development of a secondary character like the neighborhood boy who tries to befriend Coraline, Selick strives to pull the viewer into the world he’s crafted. More than with any of his other films, Coraline exists is a world well worth visiting.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)