Seven years in the making, Henry Selick's Coraline is a mind- boggling feat of stop motion animation. Presented in glorious 3-D as a Sydney Film Festival first, Selick's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's award winning 2002 novella harks back to the spooky traditions of the Brothers Grimm.
In classic fable lore, Coraline is the story of a girl moving to a new home with her neglectful parents. Discovering an alternate world where her 'Other Mother' dotes on her, Coraline delights in this greener grass until she realises that all is not what it seems.
Thematically and visually, Coraline is like a delightful cocktail of Alice in Wonderland, Fantasia and Pan's Labyrinth, with a sprinkle of Psycho and a dash of Beetle Juice. Selick -- who has The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach to his name -- is clearly in his element. He unapologetically subjects his pint-sized protagonist to the dark, Grimm story of a dream disintegrating into a nightmare. Indeed the film strays far into the shadows, despite looking like a kids film.
Breathing life into Selick's magnificent animation is the talented voice work of Dakota Fanning (Coraline), Teri Hatcher (Mother/Other Mother), Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders (as the batty burlesque duo Miss Forcible and Miss Spink). Ian McShane rounds out the cast as the captivating circus type Mr. Bobinksi. It is a testament to the these actors and Selick's adaptation that you come away from the film wanting to spent more time with this colourful cast of characters.
Colourful they most certainly are, thanks to Selick's marvellous team of animators. The visuals are, quite simply, magic and fortunately they chose to avoid using the 3-D in a kitschy way, opting instead for the effects to be seamlessly woven into the world of Coraline.
Fascinating too is the reflexive use of animation. As the film careens towards its climax, the alternate world literally crumbles under Coraline's actions in a way that seems to investigate the art of animation itself. A world so long in the making being dramatically unravelled -- back to a blank canvas -- just as easily works for the story as it describes the filmmaking process.
However this undoing occurs a little too abruptly. For a film that spends so much time establishing not one world but two, Coraline's climactic 'game' feels rushed, which almost threatens to undermine the central conceit created by the old adage: 'the eyes are the windows to the soul.'
Despite this concern -- which again stems from a desire to spend more time in this world -- Coraline is a beautifully realised, modern day fairytale. Following in the footsteps of beloved classics, Gaiman and Selick privilege the macabre over the saccharine to create a familiar fable for future generations.
This review was originally published on Rotten Tomatoes
Australian release date: 6 August 2009