February 2, 2009

I tend to be very protective of the books I’ve read and loved, and I feel that most film adaptations don’t do their literary sources justice. Author Neil Gaiman’s repeated positive references to the progress of the stop-motion animation film adaptation of his Hugo-award winning short novel Coraline on his blog and in interviews have kept me hoping for the best, and I’ve enjoyed the vignettes and teasers Laika has released. Nothing in the promotional material gave me cause for concern: Henry Selick seemed to be treating it with respect. And that’s not a surprise, because when Gaiman completed Coraline he handed it to his agent and asked her to send a copy to Henry Selick before it had even been published. When the author trusts the filmmaker enough to do that, it eliminates the need for excessive amounts of anxiety on my part.

Director and scriptwriter Henry Selick has created a fantastic (in the true sense of the word) adaptation of the world in the multiple-award-winning book by Neil Gaiman. The screenplay is remarkably faithful to the book, with the exception of the addition of a new character. Wybie, a boy approximately Coraline’s age, was created by the filmmaker to serve as a foil for Coraline. In a book an omniscient narrator can share a character’s thoughts with the reader, but in a film that character sometimes needs interaction with others to evoke their feelings or thoughts. Wybie serves his purpose, and doesn’t detract from the story or from Coraline herself in any way. And whereas the book has Coraline very deliberately planning her final triumph over her Other Mother, the film has a more immediate and action-based conflict and resolution. If you’ve read the book, you’ll have expectations of the mouse circus: it’s delicious in film form, too. The pacing is excellent, the balance of dialogue to action is good, and each character is well-defined. All in all, the screenplay is a success.

My other concern about the film was its use of 3D technology. Too often this technology is used as a gimmick or a way to prop up what might otherwise be a less than successful sequence. This concern, too, was laid to rest in the enjoyably chilling opening sequence. Coraline is the first animated stop-motion feature to be filmed entirely in 3D, and successfully uses stereoscopy to create a seemingly more realistic stop-motion animation. There’s no gimmickry here, only a serious use of the technology to enhance the entire experience and to create the feeling of a stage with depth instead of a flat screen. There are a couple of things in the opening sequence that move out toward the audience, a nod to the experience the technology can give, but in general the technology is used to create the sense of depth and space. It makes the story more real instead of pointing out its meta-reality.

The animation is outstanding. The smoothness of the motion, the camera moves and angles are justifiably jaw-dropping. The production design is incredible. Apart from the unity of style throughout the design, the colour palette and texture are big players in the film. There’s a certain excitement knowing that the animated film you’re about to see has been actually constructed in tangible, physical form. The magic is real; it’s not an effect. Of course, the star of the film is also only twenty-two inches tall, but that doesn’t make it any easier to build her world realistically. Textures and fabrics need to be to scale, and everything needs to be as realistic as possible. For certain close-up shots of hands and such things, larger models need to be built to provide the proper sense of proportion and scale. The animating team also used rapid prototyping technology to create the multitude of facial expressions exhibited by the puppets. Working from scans and casts of original sculpts, the rapid prototype department built multiple replacement faces in CG modeling programs, which were then “printed” by three-dimensional object printers to create the puppet faces for the replacement animation technique, hand-finishing each face before applying it to the puppet.

The film features excellent voice acting from a strong cast. There’s no stunt casting here: every voice actor has been cast for a genuine talent and what they bring to the role. Dakota Fanning manages a wonderful balance between eleven-year-old bravado composed of aggression and fear, while Teri Hatcher’s Mother and Other Mother are a terrific contrast between mundane and just too good to be true. The delightful John Hodgman voices Father and Other Father.

Bruno Coulais' score fits right into the film without being memorable on its own, supporting the story without calling attention to itself. The children’s choral pieces successfully contribute to the unsettling feel of the film, particularly in the opening sequence. The score features lots of harp, which creates an idyllic feel for the Other House. Much of the music makes one think of a music box, a parallel image for the falseness of the world beyond the secret door. There’s a fun little They Might Be Giants ditty sung for Coraline by her Other Father, too.

While the film projects a strong message of self-reliance, overcoming fear, and being careful about what one wishes for, it also features creepy visuals and chilling concepts, and could well serve as nightmare fodder for younger children. (Heck, I know adults who are unsettled by the notion of buttons for eyes and who refuse to see the film.) Parents considering bringing a child to the PG film should view the available trailers and excerpts available at www.coraline.com, and evaluate their child’s maturity level and story preferences carefully beforehand. (On his blog, Neil Gaiman addresses this problem by saying much the same thing: You know your child better than the filmmakers and the MPAA do.)

Stay till the end of the credits for a credit cookie, as well as a bonus “for those in the know.”

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