Coraline

1 Dec 2009

video

Neil Gaiman is another writer whose work has proven difficult to translate in to the medium of film. I'm sure we all remember the debacle that was Mirrormask.

It helps then, that the director of the latest adaptation is Henry Selick, the genius behind The Nightmare before Christmas (and anyone who thought that accolade belonged to Tim Burton could probably benefit from a little research on the subject). What Selick can do better than any other director I can think of off the top of my head, is to remain absolutely true to the writer's vision while still producing a film that audiences love. I don't know why that skill is so rare, but far too often Hollywood films suffer from the ego of the director who feels an all consuming need to put his own creative stamp on the film to the detriment of the author's work.

Adaptations normally go in to 2 categories - ones which adhere too rigidly to the text without making allowances for the fact that it's a different medium (I'm going to site Harry Potter here, although the main fault with those movies is of course Hermionie's eyebrows), or one which pay little attention to the real core of the book and use it merely as a springboard or marketing tool (the recent Narnia series leaps to mind).

Henry Selick sits between these two categories. A rare breed - a director with so little ego that he allowed his most famous creation, and a film that took 4 years of his life, to be preceded with the words "Tim Burton's". Having realised the visions of both Tim Burton and Roald Dahl, he was probably the first name that came up in a google search for 'director, creepy, strange, macabre' and therefore he was clearly an excellent choice to direct Neil Gaimon's best seller 'Coraline.'

Coraline is the story of a young girl who walks through a secret door in her new home and discovers an alternate version of her life. On the surface, this parallel reality is eerily similar to her real life - only much better. But when her adventure turns dangerous, and her counterfeit parents (including Other Mother) try to keep her forever, Coraline must count on her resourcefulness, determination, and bravery to get back home - and save her family. It's a splendidly weird, funny and frightening book which deservedly sits next to Alice in Wonderland on any bookshelf.

It's also an excellent movie. It's beautifully hand crafted, and retains it's stop motion aesthetics while not allowing the technique to limit it in any way. There were no short cuts taken, and an absolute minimum of computer effects added in post production. What the animators saw on the set was exactly what we saw on the screen.

This beautiful film was made even more so by it's clever use of 3D. Coraline is the first stop motion film to have been made using stereoscopic 3D, and it uses it carefully, thoughtfully and to great effect. The claustrophobic feeling of the real world is heightened by the minimum depth used, causing a palpable relaxation and joy when the corridor expands towards the more spacious Other World for the first time. This is what 3D was made for - not cheap effects and finding every opportunity to wave a long object towards the audience, but to subtly enhance the experience. Old 3D (red and green lenses) gave a lot of people headaches, but the new stereoscopic 3D is a huge advancement in the field and was used successfully to add another dimension (literally) to what was already a excellent film.

We were lucky enough to hear Brian Van't Hul (the visual effects supervisor) at Bradford Animation Festival this year, and he explained some of the challenges involved in making a stop motion 3D film. For every frame they have to calibrate the distance between the left eve and the right eye (based on the amount of perspective that they want to include), then they set the camera to take one photo, move that distance and take a second. They do this for every frame (24 in a second) and put them together to create what we see on the screen. It's adds an awful lot to an already time consuming process, and Van't Hul practically admitted that it was done mostly as a marketing gimmick. I wouldn't like to see every film in 3D, but in cases such as Coraline, where it has been carefully thought out and used to improve the narrative and the audience experience, I think it has a place.

Teri Hatcher and Dakota Fanning voice the lead characters, with parts for Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French too, and they all put in a completely real and convincing performance. Teri Hatcher, who I watch avidly in Desperate Housewives each week, was excellent as both the Mother and the Other Mother, giving each both character (and the transformations thereof) such subtle naunces of expression and forceful character that she was completely captivating in every frame.

Many adults leaving Coraline have been heard muttering how it was too scary for their sensitive little cherubs, and that it's too frightening for it's PG rating (mostly while the aforementioned cherubs are jumping about happily next to them recounting how funny that bit with the Scotty dogs was). This is adults trying to protect kids from the type of films that formed their own fears; films like the Wizard of Oz, or The Witches (which literally had all the guests at my 6th birthday party hidden behind the couch). People need to experience fear early in life so that they're not crippled by it later, and Coraline fits perfectly in to that need. The young protagonist defeating the forces of evil will leave kids exhilarated and empowered, not petrified and hiding in their Mother's apron's for the rest of their lives.

I can't begin to mention every detail of what made this film great, but I cannot recommend it enough. The animation, direction, pacing, acting, plot and atmosphere are all outstanding and it fully deserves the awards that are being showered upon it. Go and see it. Preferably in 3D, but it's still a great film without.

ALSO, make sure you watch to the very end of the credits. There's a sequence there that took the animators 6 weeks to create, but which was then cut from the movie. Because it's so beautiful (and because the animators were probably threatening a nervous breakdown) they put it at the end as a reward for the stragglers.

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