Stop-motion animation has always sort of fascinated me. With traditional 2D drawn animation, I’m already impressed with how much focus, dedication and vision it takes to breathe life into a film’s world. Stuff like the Escher scene from The Thief and the Cobbler fill me with a sort of awe that I can’t easily describe. I don’t think I’ve ever been passionate about anything as much as some of these people must’ve been to work on something like that.
So when you get into something like stop-motion animation, it just boggles my mind. PHYSICALLY building everything that you’re going to be using, then meticulously moving it bit by bit as you capture each individual frame… cripes. Stuff that used to be easy in drawn animation, like making a character jump, becomes a mystery I’m not sure I want spoiled when done in stop-motion. It’s not a common or popular art form, however. Like any type of animation, or entertainment for that matter, if the animator gets bogged down in the technical aspects of it and stops paying attention to story and character, you just end up with a technically impressive sleep-aid. I rented a collection of short films by famous stop-motion animators the Brothers Quay that I was eager to watch, but soon found that they had no interest other than just creating atmospheric backdrops for inanimate objects to move around in. It was extremely boring.
Probably the best known stop-motion feature in recent memory was Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, a musical with a distinctively gothic, quirky aesthetic and loads of creativity in its execution. The director, Henry Selick, whom everyone seems to forget, recently released another stop-motion film based on Neil Gaiman’s storybook Coraline. Helllllllll yeah.
First off, let me say that before I even knew anything about the movie, the ad campaign for it had me hooked. It’s seriously the most impressive and effective ad campaign I’ve ever seen for a mainstream film. The sheer variety of TV commercials they cooked up had me floored. Usually you just see slight variations on the same commercial for a movie on TV. Maybe sometimes they’ll alter it to appeal more to another demographic they’re aiming for, like kids or men or women, but the feel is generally the same. Coraline doesn’t quite do that. Instead of merely trying to appeal to different demographics (although they were trying to do that, too, I’m not stupid), what the marketers did was showcase different tones of the film itself. One was the typical overview of the premise that let people know what the movie was. That’s not too special. But then I saw one with creepy music and ghost children and I was a bit struck by the different feel it had. Then there was another with a catchy, jaunty tune about the heroine. And then there was another where it showed the production crew actually constructing the characters, although doing it in very creepy ways, like how they put Coraline’s eye sockets in and stuff like that. Just by seeing how much care had been put into getting my attention, this movie already had my money.
But finally, to the premise! Coraline is about the titular girl, who moves with her parents out into the country where they rent a house apartment that has rather eccentric neighbors. Coraline’s feeling ignored and unappreciated by her parents, who are scrambling to work on an important deadline and don’t really react well to her attempts to get their attention. Wybie, the landlady’s grandson, takes an interest in her, but Coraline doesn’t really give him the time of day because she finds him annoying. At the end of her rope, she explores the house and finds a small locke door in the wall. When she finds the key, it turns out the door leads… to a brick wall. But when she goes to bed at night, she gets drawn back to the door, which now seems to have a portal behind it which leads to… her house. At least to a place that looks like her house. But it’s inhabited with a mother and father who fawn all over her and live only to please and entertain her. Oh, and everyone besides Coraline has buttons for eyes. She thinks this is swell and keeps going back night after night until she decides she wants to stay with Other Mother and the rest. This thrills them. The only catch? They want Coraline to sew buttons onto her eyes.
Of course there’s more from there, but you get the gist. Sort of the same type of plot you’ve seen in other films, like Spirited Away; the bratty kid getting what they think they want and instead being put through a set of grueling trials that make them appreciate what they already had. I appreciate it when a kids’ film can show the protagonist being, realistically, a bit of a brat in the beginning. Yeah, it’d be great if Coraline’s parents weren’t so wrapped up in their work, but it’s a temporary situation and when they DO try to reach back out to her, she rebuffs their advances. Too often in kids’ films, the adults are idiots worthy of contempt and the kids are the sensible ones, because they’re afraid to do anything but suck up to their target audience. And the movie has a pretty great lesson for children. Even though Coraline’s real life may suck at times, it’s real and her parents can give her real love, which is more than what she can say for the fantasy world and her Other Mother. It’s not necessarily saying that life sucks, deal with it. It’s more about learning to appreciate the people and things in your life that are genuine. I’m not usually one to compliment Neil Gaiman, but hey. Kudos.
And, of course, I should talk about the technical aspects of the movie. The animation is so good you forget it’s animation, which is one of the greatest compliments I think you can give an animator. 90% of the movie moves so fluidly and freely that you’ll forget you’re watching a bunch of inanimate models. Every so often, there’s some jerky, low-frame movement to be seen, but it hardly takes away from the spectacle of, say, a mouse circus. Henry Selick made it all look effortless, which is outstanding.
And the music was surprisingly good, too! I’d never heard of the soundtrack composer, Bruno Coulais, but the French twist he brings is, astonishingly, a perfect fit for Coraline. When she goes to explore the house at the beginning and the music shifts to a jolly tune with some French singing, my heart leaped. This seems to be Coulais’ first American film credit, so I’m interested in researching his earlier career to hear some more from him. They Might Be Giants supplied a short tune sung by Other Father, which was used in the marketing, and it’s fantastic. Too bad it’s totally not the sort of thing that would be on the Academy’s radar for Best Original Song.
An added bonus for those of us who saw it in the theater was that it was also released in 3D. Now, my previous experience with 3D was with the disappointing (and also written by Neil Gaiman!) film Beowulf, where they gave huge uncomfortable headgear that didn’t really fit over my normal glasses. And on top of that, the 3D was used maybe three times for stupid tricks like waving spears at the audience or whatever. Not so in Coraline. The glasses I got were slim and easy to put over my regular pair, and the 3D effects were pervasive, atmospheric and the best use of the technology I’ve seen. I’m so glad I saw this during its theatrical run and have these memories, because it just won’t quite be the same when it comes to home video sans-third dimension. If you haven’t seen it this way yet, I order you to make the effort to do so!
These days, where CG animation seems to be the de facto standard, it can be difficult to see any sort of variety in animation. It’s encouraging to see a movie so off the beaten path like this get produced without the name Pixar next to it. And by Focus Features, no less! I’m starting to like those guys. }:3 It just kinda sucks that it’ll get lost in the shuffle of animation later on in the year, especially Pixar’s Up, when it comes to Best Animated Film nominations. Keep the hope alive for humble animation directors like Selick. AND FOR THE LAST TIME, TIM BURTON HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS MOVIE.