Sunday, February 8, 2009

Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009)

by James Hansen

Happy to linger in its stunningly realized 3D world, Henry Selick’s Coraline is all about the visuals. Though 3D has long been used as a cinematic bag of tricks to throw at a totally suspecting audience, Coraline successfully expands this usage by fully embedding 3D technology into its world. Each varying space is effectively extended, distorted, and shifted for specific narratological purposes. Moreover, Coraline’s stop-motion animation is, to put it quite simply, jaw-dropping. To this end, Coraline is an astounding success that should be a benchmark for future 3D animated projects. Outside of the visuals, however, Coraline feels all too characteristic, unmotivated, and relatively unsubstantive. The visual mastery helps mask its shallow narrative to a point, but Coraline’s failure to satisfy on multiple levels holds it back from greatness.

Having recently moved to Oregon from her home in Michigan, Coraline is displaced from the get go. Her blue hair and yellow jacket clashes with the grays, blacks, and faded pink colors that predominate her entire world. Her parents are fed up with her childish antics. Her dad sports a Michigan State shirt – another rival to the blue and gold (i.e. U of Mich) Coraline. They might as well be from different worlds. On an excursion around the house, Coraline finds a small door which appears to open into a wall of bricks. Later that night, however, Coraline discovers the door is actually a portal into an alternate world where her parents are nice, her annoying stalker cannot speak, and life seems cheery. Of course, there is more to that world than initially meets the button eye.

While the amusing minor characters begin to highlight to Coraline the crucial differences in the her real world and the other world, this dialectic is only confirmed visually. The battle between the world and her ultimate desire for the real happens in an instant. Adapted from a book by Neil Gaiman, the screenplay lacks any real motivation for Coraline to make her decision. Neither world is fleshed out in the narrative enough for the decision to be on anything but visual perception. Then again, with the major threat being that of replacing your eyes with buttons, perhaps there is something crucial about vision in the narrative. Vision really is everything.

The major problem is that the climax feels so unmotivated precisely because the narrative lingers in each distinct world, event, and movement that it fails to establish emotions for either world. Instead, when Coraline is suddenly (read: randomly) saving the souls of other children by achieving three tasks, the story turns into a shabby video game like narrative. The tasks may be interesting and we certainly know who we want to win, but there just is not a lot to it. While it was all fun to look at and be a part of, Coraline almost asks for the viewer for a complacent viewing experience in regard to its narrative. This failure to jive with the smart, sophisticated visuals (especially since 3D is supposedly more interactive) left me equally complacent in my final response. Rather than build its elements together to achieve a great viewing experience, Coraline is a little too simple and a little too complicated for itself all at once.


Anonymous said...

I completely agree with this review. I really liked the movie as a whole, but it was definitely in a mindless sort of way.

Good review homey.

Joel Bocko said...

This ties in interestingly - or perhaps at a perpendicular angle - with Erich's excellent screed over at Bright Lights, which I hope you've read. Those his target is more an empty, slick, "craftsmanship"-like style, while you are discussing what sounds like a more valuable visual scheme, there is a connection between glossy surface and skimpy content (in his case visceral/emotional, in your case narrative).

It amazes me how many half-baked stories get produced in Hollywood. With the pressure so high on other aspects of filmmaking (to the point where a certain style of flawless craftsmanship becomes fetishized as Erich discusses) you'd think there'd be just a tad more effort put into the narrative, but so often this is the aspect that most falls short. It's one of the least expensive and one of the most essential - though perhaps not in an obvious way - to ensuring the film's success (would Shreck have been so successful if it looked the same but didn't have the inventive story?). Go figure.

(Interesting too that in the 70s - supposedly an auteurist age - the screenplays were astonishingly more sophisticated and inventive than in any other American era).

James Hansen said...

Thanks for the comments guys. Erich's review is top notch (as always). I just really got hung up on the narrative of this (especially when it turns into a straight up video game at the end) which held me back from any emotional connection the lieks of which I've had with some other stop-motion/animated works. I still like the movie and think it works wonderfully on a visual level (and even on a narrative level until the last half hour or so). I just think there is something missing in the narrative motivation and telling that holds it back.

Anonymous said...

It's only in 2-D at my theater. Lame.

Chuck W said...

Same problem, Jacob. Just 2D here too. I was going to hold out for a 3D showing, but I might not after reading some of the reviews.

Brandon Colvin said...

Chuck - If by "here" you mean BG, you are incorrect, sir. I saw it in 3D at the Great Escape 12 last night. It was okay. Would've been substantially less enjoyable if it were 2D.

The first garden sequence was absolutely mind-blowing.

Chuck W said...

Hmm. I guess I was wrong--whoops. I really need to get out more.

Still, I think I'd rather stay home and watch my Sam Fuller bootlegs.