Pack Rat is like a good tumble down the rabbit hole, if you know what I mean, wink wink
photo copyright LAIKA Inc./Focus Features
When times get tough, for better or worse the first things to go are what we deem “luxuries” and extravagances, also known as just about anything entertaining. Which can have a silver lining as it often forces us to dust off our imaginations and make our own fun. But some days you don’t feel like playing kick the can anymore any you just have to get out. The challenge then becomes getting the most fun for the least amount of money. Therefore it may seem utterly insane that I’m recommending a $14 movie. But I figure that you might spend just as much or more at the bar, club, restaurant, or whatever after dark shenanigans you may get into. And the movie Coraline, unlike yet another sushi dinner, will be a totally fresh experience.
Cartoon nerds and Neil Gaiman dorks probably won’t need to be convinced of this movie’s merits (I know I didn’t need to be), but for the rest of you out there, lets do the ol’ pros and cons bit. I’m gonna be straight with you right up front. If you don’t fall in the 8 – 11 year old range, or if you’re not a “child at heart” then this story probably isn’t going to do much for you. It’s another worn out retelling of Alice in Wonderland and, even more yawn inducing, a blatant re-purposing of another Neil Gaiman movie plot, Mirror Mask. The man can write comics, but apparently when it comes to film (or books that are adapted into film) he’s only got one story up his sleeve, and it goes like this: young pre-teen girl (in this case, Coraline) has a rough time at home fitting in with her family. She especially locks horns with her equally headstrong mother. Through a series of events, the girl finds herself in a topsy turvey world with elaborate strange creatures, including one that strongly resembles her mother. After enjoying a carefree romp in this new world, she declares that she prefers it to her old one and decides to stay. Once her mind has been made up, the maternal clone in the new world starts to reveal sinister intentions. It isn’t too long before the girl realizes that nothing can replace her real mother. She has to go on a mini quest and retrieve some trinkets in order to make her way home, yadda yadda yadda, happy ending.
But you know what? In some ways story is overrated. There, I said it. If I’m going to pay big bucks to see something on a big ass screen, I want to SEE something. I mean, the gritty reality of Slumdog Millionaire might make an emotional story, but you really wouldn’t miss anything if you waited until you could rent it for $4.99 and watch it at home. Coraline, on the other hand, is truly a wondrous eyeful. Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick (ah ha ha. You thought it was Tim Burton, didn’t you? Yeah that’s what they wanted you to think. Burton had writer and producer credits) takes two cinematic antiquities, stop-motion animation and 3-D, does a little three card Monte shuffle with them, and boom! Transforms them into a movie going experience light years ahead of anything else in theaters.
The opening animation sequence of the film is like the safety instructions they give you on an airplane. As you don your glasses (cool, Corey Hart looking frames now, no longer those cheesy cardboard red and blue numbers), you see a spidery hand systematically dismantle a stuffed doll, which in and of itself is innocuous enough. But as seams are ripped, stuffing emptied and sutures re-sewn into the doll’s joints, a dark, creepy sensation begins to crawl up you leg, and as needle and thread come out of the screen and into your lap, it’s a tacit explanation that you better be sure you know where the nearest exits are. Which is not to say that the movie is unnecessarily jumpy or jerky. Unlike Nightmare, which was revamped for 3D theaters a few years ago, because Coraline was created with the original intention of being shown in 3D, it has none of Nightmare‘s flat moments where the 3D just seems to fade away, nor does it have any of the spinning vertigo/head ache inducing numbers.
Instead, what Coraline has is a wonderful symmetry of two thrilling media that combined produce one of the most otherworldly sensory experiences available. The stop motion animation that Selick employs gives a startling realism, a sense of texture, of depth, of shadow, and a general tactile quality that the recently omnipresent computer graphic imaging process has a hard time capturing. As Selick said in a recent interview with NPR’s All Things Considered, “Stop-motion is sort of twitchy; you feel the life in it.” He believes the beauty of stop-motion is in the traces that remain of an animator’s hand. And 3D filming, in this case, wasn’t for shock value. Selick uses it as a piece to his story telling. He says he was looking for something to give the film the same feel as the Wizard of Oz, when the picture changed from black and white, to color.
So what if the story he is telling is a little drab. The world Selick creates is anything but. Working in tandem with the standard digital surround sound, Coraline becomes a multi-sensory immersion into this fantasy land. Coraline walks through a garden and technicolor flowers pop open, their swollen red petals and yellow pollen vibrant and dazzling. She enters a darkened room and one by one, life-sized beetles begin to glow at different depths; you feel as though the closest is sitting right in front of you. A night sky bursts into a fractal swirl, and it is magic.
Coraline is a candystore filled with treats in bright, shiny packaging. It’s not enough to make a meal, but by God it is a satisfying indulgence.
Coraline the book, photo copyright by HarperCollins