Friday, February 6, 2009

A beautifully realized fantasy world

It should come as no surprise that "Coraline," a movie directed by Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach") proves visually stunning, particularly at selected theaters which are playing the movie in 3D. I'm not a huge fan of 3D -- hate the glasses, hate thinking about it while watching a movie -- but I'd say that Selick makes wise use of the third dimension, emphasizing depth over gimmicky stunts in which objects seem to fly off the screen. Initially charming but increasingly prone to darkness, "Coraline" has been creatively realized by Selick, who specializes in stop-action animation and brilliant puppetry.

The story centers on Coraline (voice by Dakota Fanning) an 11-year-old who moves with her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) into a large, somewhat lonely house. The isolated Coraline turns to her parents for attention, but they're always busy working. Left to her own devices, Coraline discovers a hidden door that leads to a tunnel which lands her in an alternate universe, the flip side of a life in which mom and dad never seem to leave their computers.

Coraline's mom and dad are present in this new world -- after a fashion. Unlike their real world counterparts, "alternate" mom and dad are happy, fun-loving folks. Everything looks rosy for Coraline, although signs of trouble quickly appear. Both mom and dad have buttons where their eyes are supposed to be. I don't know about you but the thought of eyes sewn onto a face -- especially if it's mine -- feels pretty disturbing.

The bright imaginative surface of this new world masks its perils. Mom isn't quite as accommodating as she initially seems. In fact, menacing adventures await Coraline, who learns that she probably should have been a little more accepting of her parents, the ones with real eyes and busy schedules.

So appealing at first, Other Mother -- as alternate mom is known -- turns out to be a monster, and "Coraline" takes a creepy turn that disqualifies it as entertainment for the youngest children. (Someone suggested that age 12 might be an appropriate starting point to enter the sometimes threatening world that Selick creates.) Little kids may be justifiably unnerved by the fact that Coraline's Other Mother doesn't want her to return to the "real" world.

It may be possible to walk into "Coraline" at any moment during its 100-minute running time and be swept away by its colors and hand-made artistry. Early on, I found myself completely engaged in the world that Selick creates; but as "Coraline" wore on, I began to forget the story and focus on the visuals. For me, "Coraline" stopped being a movie and turned into a museum-quality curio -- an achievement to marvel over even when it wasn't being totally enjoyable. Put another way, the world that Selick creates may be as memorable as anyone in it. Still, it's quite a world.

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