A fairy tale for the cool kids ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A fairy tale for the cool kids

My rating:

I was first introduced to Neil Gaiman through his comicbook epic The Sandman. I loved it, but I haven't been a very faithful fan; I've not read most of his later novels. Which includes Coraline, so this review isn't going to talk much about how well the film adapts the novel. (It'd be a much better review if it did, yes, I know, I am teh fail.) To be honest, my biggest impression of this film is that most kids would probably find it boring - unlike, say, something like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

How very uncool of me. I am teh epic fail.

Eleven-year-old Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) has just moved with her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) into an apartment in an old converted mansion. Feeling neglected by her busy parents, she befriends her neighbours: Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), a boy her age; retired actresses Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French); Russian circus acrobat Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane); and a mysterious cat (Keith David). One day, she finds a tiny door through which she crawls through, and finds an alternate world populated by doppelgangers of her family and neighbours - only with buttons in place of their eyes. They tempt her with love, attention, and the wonder and magic of their world - but Coraline soon learns that their ruler, the monstrous Other Mother, isn't as benevolent and loving as she seems.

Okay, I did like this movie, just not by much. Writer and director Henry Selick employs the same stop-motion animation and visual style as he did in The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. I can appreciate the uniqueness of the look and the breadth and depth of imagination on display - but I gotta say, it's not my aesthetic cup of tea. Coraline is the most visually attractive of the characters - and the range of emotion she displays is pretty amazing, considering it was all done in what amounts to a more sophisticated version of claymation - but the others are kinda ugly. It works better in the second half, when things are supposed to get scary and horrifying and nightmarish.

Scary and horrifying and nightmarish in a kids' movie? Ee-yup. Now, I don't think all children's entertainment should be sanitised - I think horror as a genre of fiction is relevant to a child's exposure to the world, especially in a story like this where the child heroine defeats the horrors. (Of course she does, that wasn't a spoiler laa.) I'm just not sure Selick's aesthetic and storytelling sensibilities can compete with modern animated films. Something like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs - which, yes, I liked better than this one - provides so much more entertainment value, packing more jokes and gags into one minute than Coraline does in five. During the first half, when the Other Mother tempts Coraline with three wonders - a magical garden, the Other Bobinsky's circus, and the Other Spink and Forcible's theatre show - I actually found them kinda dull.

Or maybe it's just me. Hey, by all means, show me a kid who loved this movie. I'd love to think that today's children aren't so ADD that they can't appreciate a slower-paced film, one that isn't so desperate to entertain. And the story is certainly a great one. It's at heart a dark fairy tale, one that reminds me of Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece Spirited Away. What I love about fairy tales on film is that it allows for fantastic and wildly imaginative worlds, yet they always teach a very simple lesson - the heroine wins the day by being brave, smart, and kind-hearted. Coraline starts out as a somewhat bratty and nasty kid, but when the people close to her are in danger, she rises to the occasion. When the wonders of the Other Mother's world are exposed for the horrors that they are, and a little girl must brave them to rescue those trapped inside, that's when the movie started to get good.

Dakota Fanning has no problem giving voice to the strong-willed Coraline; she's the finest young actress of her generation, and casting her in the role is a real coup. Teri Hatcher has fun playing both Coraline's real mother and the hideous Other Mother; the former is easy, but the latter has her cackling and screaming like a true fantasy monster. Keith David is an unconventional choice for the cat that becomes Coraline's ally (and yes, he's a cat that talks, at least in the alternate world), but it works. Then there's Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, veteran British comediennes, and their performances should really have been funnier. But this is Henry Selick, not DreamWorks Animation.

I would love to lambast whoever was responsible for not letting this movie onto Malaysian screens - I suspect it's the Censorship Board, and God knows what bug got up their ass this time - but I don't think it would have made much money anyway. The average Malaysian kid and the average Malaysian parent aren't sophisticated enough to appreciate a film like this - and the fact that I can see their point of view probably means I'm guilty of the same. But I did like this movie. I was never engrossed or enthralled, but I was engaged, by the adventures of a girl who learns to be brave, smart and kind. That's not just a good movie - that's the perfect lesson to teach a child.