February 12, 2009

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Coraline (PG)
A girl finds the doorway to an alternate universe in her family’s new home in Coraline, a beautiful, magical and completely terrifying stop-motion animated feature that is playing in 3-D in about half its local screenings.

Terrifying in 3-D — think on that before you decide to bring your youngsters. This is definitely a movie for kids — mature and not easily disturbed kids — about 9 or 10 years old and up. Though this movie has none of the swearing or raunchy humor you’d normally associate with a PG-13 label, I almost think PG-13 here would have given parents a more accurate sense of the fear level than putting it in PG with the likes of Bolt and Hotel for Dogs. (This movie is a good argument for a rating system with more tiers, similar to TV, where it could have a TV Y7 instead of the broader audience that a PG implies.)

Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning) and her mother (Teri Hatcher) and father (John Hodgman) move to a creaky old house in the country. Coraline’s parents are busy writing, so she’s left to discover on her own the neighbors who live in other apartments in the house. Downstairs, it’s the former high-wire act performers Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French). Upstairs, it’s the Russian trainer of a circus of mice, Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane). The only neighboring kid is Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.). His grandmother owns the house and she doesn’t want him to go inside for some spooky reason vaguely involving the disappearance, decades earlier, of her sister.
And, perhaps, involving a doll that Wybie finds with his grandmother’s things and that he gives to Coraline. The doll seems to look just like Coraline, and its arrival precedes the magical discovery that the small door in the wall of the family’s living room isn’t just a bricked-off door-to-nowhere but is occasionally a portal into another world. Or, rather, the Other world.

In this Other place that looks almost exactly like the home Coraline lives in now, she finds an Other Mother happily singing while she makes dinner and hails Coraline’s arrival, eager to dote on her. There, the Other Father sings songs about Coraline and designs an eerily beautiful garden just for Coraline. This Other version of her house seems infinitely warmer and more fun than her real house with her real, distracted parents. Only the Cat (Keith David), who can somehow talk in this Other world, offers hints that everything is not as wonderful as it appears.

Actually, Coraline has one rather big hint going in. Her Other Mother, her Other Father, the Other Mr. Bobinsky — all the people in this Other place — have buttons for eyes. It’s disturbing even when they smile and especially when the Other Mother suggests that it might be nice if Coraline had them too.

See what I mean? Terrifying.

There are other moments of creepiness, spookiness and down-right to-the-core fright (a rare and delicious thing after sitting through so many un-scary disposable and interchangeable horror movies recently). The uneasiness starts with the visuals. This movie’s writer and director, Henry Selick, also worked on The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, two other movies that are excellent at mixing fantasy and fear. Even in the “real” world, the stop-motion characters have an otherworldly look to them, accentuated by the fact that they have a depth (leading to odd perspectives and shadows) that you don’t always get in regular computer animation. The 3-D is layered onto the movie very nicely. Nothing springs out at you, pop-up-book-style. Instead, the movie pulls you in, particularly in the scenes where Coraline is traveling in the tunnel between the two worlds. We feel like we’re falling, like Alice down the rabbit hole, into this new world more than we feel like its edges are poking out at us. If the blurry-vision-causing 3-D effects from the recent Super Bowl commercials are what you think of when you think of 3-D, let this movie change your mind. Here, the extra dimension is an extra dimension to the fantasy and the feelings created by the story, not a visual gimmick.

And the look of the movie, with its hints of Tim Burton-ness and its built-in menace, is definitely the dominant factor of the film. You will leave thinking more about the visuals than the vocal performances. I would argue that less dramatic visuals would dampen the impact of the story as well, though it has the kind of old-fashioned sense of fear of the dark and the unknown that you used to fine in fairy tales before they became friendly and princess-focused.

Coraline is a lovely and fascinating dark fairy tale and one that you will definitely want to see on the big screen rather than on DVD, and in 3-D if possible. And though it’s not perhaps your inclination with an animated movie, you’ll probably want to leave the kids — at least the younger kids — at home. B+

Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, some language and suggestive humor. Written and directed by Henry Selick (from a book by Neil Gaiman), Coraline is an hour and 40 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Focus Features.