Movie Tuesday: Coraline (PG)

Motherworldly Delights
Coraline explores an alternate universe of overbearing parenting run amok
By Jared Peterson

What if things were different? We all wonder once in a while. But the landscapes of our dreams are rarely made from scratch. So often, our wishes are small—if mom did this instead of that, if the boy next door were nice instead of mean, if we’d moved, if we’d stayed. And maybe that’s why we’re not always so careful what we wish for. A regret reversed, a wrong righted—what could be the harm?

Coraline Jones wishes things were different. Uprooted from a comfortable life when her family moved from Michigan to a sleepy corner of Oregon, she wanders the grounds of their run-down boarding house, fighting back the boredom of small-town isolation and parental neglect. While exploring the creaky recesses of her new home, Coraline (voiced by the annoyingly talented Dakota Fanning) comes upon that temptation of temptations, a locked door; she soon discovers that it opens onto a glowing portal leading to parallel world. Things are different there. She finds a house like her own, but bright and clean; parents like hers (Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman), only attentive and obliging. Her eccentric neighbors—a Russian acrobat (Ian McShane) and two portly, aging burlesque stars (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French)—act as her personal entertainment, staging showstoppers seemingly made just for her. Of course, there’s the fact that every one of them has black buttons sewn where their eyes should be. And therein lies the inevitable catch: to stay in this world and let it to cater to her needs, she, too, must give up her peepers. When she hesitates, things get weird(er), and it becomes clear that her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher again, only creepier) is running this show, conjuring wonders to lure Coraline to this side of the wall. The motherly love on offer is actually perverse and crushing, and it promises to suck the life right from her. (No coincidence, then, that this manipulator’s true form is a witchy, elongated caricature of that dearest of mommies, Joan Crawford.) A Hero’s Quest ensues as Coraline follows clues to unravel the plans and the power of her mother’s alter ego and return to the mundane.

I screened Coraline in its 3D version, and I’d say it’s an experience worth seeking out. The new technology is light years ahead of flimsy paper glasses with disorienting red-green lenses, allowing a clear, full-color passage into the action. In this case, 3D is really a relative term; compared with good-old 2D cinema, what you get here isn’t quite the complete immersion of, say, a movie-based thrill ride at an amusement park. Here, stop-motion animation combines with high-tech depth of field to give the feel of a life-sized diorama, a dazzling pop-up book into which one can dive and swim and explore.

All right, look, this movie is creepy—inventively, dynamically creepy. Coraline issues from some pretty twisted minds—Neil Gaiman, prolific fantasy author, wrote the book, which was adapted and directed by Henry Selick, best known for his altogether ooky take on holiday fun in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Selick delights in the details and textures of normalcy upended, and from the opening title sequence—the meticulous disemboweling of a doll by a pair of wiry, skeletal hands—to the operatic clamor of the final showdown on a giant spider web, Coraline is a parade of the outlandish, bizarre and, at times, unsettling. These details are too numerous and diverse to list here, but here are the broad strokes. The button-eyes are weird at first, but are soon forgotten; however, some characters continue to transmogrify into grotesque versions of themselves. Insects play a prominent role, from silverfish in the bathtub to a giant attacking praying mantis machine to a six-foot-square cockroach that blocks the exit of the Other world. And the film indulges in both loud flights of fancy and eerily quiet tip-toeing toward danger. The audience at my screening included several families with pre-K children. Some seemed squirmy and distracted (and fussy about the glasses); others, like a young boy in the row behind me, betrayed a mounting discomfort that ended in tears. (My aching heart went out to him.) If you know your pre-schoolers well enough to say whether they’ll be inured to giant insects and skeletal devil women, then it’s your call. But I for one would call a babysitter and leave the little ones at home with their own fantasies.

There are a couple of colorful expressions but no cursing. However, there is a big musical number that features two full-figured women in nothing but tiny swimsuit bottoms and glittery pasties. (What the what?) Viewers laughed nervously, though I’m not sure if most of the kids thought it any more scandalous than the parade of not-much sauntering around on Grammy night.

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At a February 7th screening, trailers for the following films (most of them in 3D) were shown: Land of the Lost (not yet rated), a campy adaptation of the campier TV show (it has lots and lots of bugs, a few wide-eyed lizards and some adult language: “out of my freaking mind,” “eat me,” “son of a…”; also, it ends with a jumper—the screen cuts to black just as a snarling, very real-looking dinosaur growls and roars behind the lumpy head of Will Farrell); Monsters vs. Aliens (PG), a DreamWorks animated comedy (featuring a high-level security door that requires a bare-butt scan); 9 (not yet rated), an animated post-apocalyptic fantasy from a trio of visual masters—Tim Burton, Timur Bekmambetov and Shane Acker; Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (not yet rated), a Paleolithic animated fantasy; and Up (not yet rated), the latest from Pixar.

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Jared Peterson is pretty sure all his doors lead to rooms littered with books. But it’s worth another look. Check out the mess at http://proweirdo.blogspot.com.

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