There are more than a dozen 3D movies scheduled to be released within the next year or so, including a Jonas Brothers concert film and the second sequel to Ice Age. I remember the brief, inglorious revival of 3D back in the early 80s that resulted in such films as Jaws 3D and Friday the 13th III. It was a clumsy gimmick that added nothing to the films, except a few pointless scenes in which someone shoves a pitchfork or a baseball bat at the camera for no discernible reason whatsoever. However, 3D effects have come a tremendously long way in the past twenty-five years, now used to create worlds, both live action and animated, so rich and crisp you almost feel like you’ve fallen into them. I thought the heights of the technology had been reached with last year’s concert film U2 3D, which had all the best parts of a live show without the overpriced souvenirs and drunk, obnoxious fans, but that’s since been surpassed with Coraline, which opened today and is already an early contender for best animated film of the year.
Coraline, based on a short novel by Neil Gaiman, is a dark, twisted little fairy tale that redefines the notion of “be careful what you wish for.” The title character, voiced by Dakota Fanning, is a sullen, lonely adolescent who’s just moved to a run-down apartment building in Oregon, where her neighbors are a pair of elderly former burlesque dancers (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French), a Russian acrobat who claims to train a mouse circus (Ian McShane), and Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), a well-meaning but pesky boy about Coraline’s age who presents her with a doll that looks eerily like her. Coraline lives with her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), writers who aren’t unkind to her so much as distant and distracted. Frustrated by their inattentiveness, Coraline explores her new home on her own, eventually discovering a tiny door covered with wallpaper. Opening the door reveals nothing but a brick wall initially, but after night falls it leads to an alternate universe, where Coraline discovers what is seemingly her perfect world, in the same house but now one that is bright and cheery, and duplicates of her parents who lavish her with love and attention. Her “other mother” fusses over her and cooks and cleans to perfection, while her “other father” writes songs for her and creates a spectacular garden with snapdragons that look like real dragons and bleeding heart flowers that pulse and glow red when she passes them. When he takes her for a ride on a flying mechanical praying mantis, she is delighted to see that the garden is designed to look like her face.
It’s a dream come true for Coraline, except for one tiny detail: the eyes of her other parents, as well as the alternate versions of everyone else including Wybie and the Russian acrobat, have been replaced with buttons. Her other mother tells her that she can stay with them forever provided she take on button eyes as well, giving Coraline a clue that things are not what they seem. With the help of a stray cat (Keith David), she discovers that the other mother lures unhappy children with the promise of the life they always wanted, only to trap them and steal their souls. Coraline manages to escape, but eventually returns to rescue the souls of the children who were captured before her, as well as her real parents, who have been kidnapped by the other mother and trapped in a snow globe.
Coraline manages to look gorgeous while being creepy as hell. There are times where you actually forget you’re watching a 3D movie, as the effect is used mostly to add depth and texture to the backgrounds, and never once seems like unnecessary bells and whistles to pad an empty script. Some of the scenes, such as the first time Coraline enters the garden in the alternate universe, as well as a performance by the mouse circus, are nothing short of breathtaking. And yet, even during the most whimsical scenes there is a distinct undercurrent of darkness and foreboding. Something is very much not right, no matter how much even the audience feels they could enjoy some of what the alternate universe offers (I for one coveted the family’s “gravy train”). “Perfection” never comes without a price, and in Coraline‘s case the price is never once displeasing the other mother, which gives the film an interesting subtext. I’d be curious to find out what Neil Gaiman’s relationship with his mother is like, as Coraline takes that old saying “if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” to a grotesque degree. This is particularly true when it comes to the “other father,” who, as the more controlling and angrier the other mother gets, becomes a drooling, useless lump. A scene in which he chases after Coraline on the mechanical praying mantis, telling her “I’m sorry, your mother made me do this” in an otherworldly voice is positively bone-chilling.
Let’s be very clear on this: if you think your kids are delicate flowers who can’t handle a film that isn’t about singing princesses and karate-chopping panda bears, don’t take them to see Coraline. If you thought that Wall-E was too serious and downbeat for children, don’t take them to see Coraline. Director Henry Selick and the animators behind it created a Gorey-esque film that, if you’re in the right (or wrong) frame of mind, could have adults waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. I saw it with an 11 year-old who’s happily watched Shaun of the Dead and Army of Darkness, and she declared it both “very cool” and “really creepy.” I fully expect to see many an article over the next week or so about parents complaining about the scary imagery in the film and its inappropriateness for children, not to mention that the heroine is a bit of a bratty sourpuss. I agree, Coraline is not for everyone. However, I strongly hope that parents’ failure to do the best they can to ensure that it’s appropriate for their children should not take away from the impact of this film, a beautifully made nightmare about learning to be happy with what you have, because things can be a whole lot worse on the other side.