When it was announced that Neil Gaiman's award-winning novella "Coraline" would be adapted to film, my heart leapt into my throat with excitement, but also nervousness. If the novella was given to the wrong director, or the wrong screenwriter, many things could go wrong, and I had been burned when it came to Neil Gaiman before (such as the lackluster "Beowulf" film), so I had my doubts. However, once it was announced that the film would be done in stop-motion animation and would be directed and written by Henry Selick, the under appreciated animation director of such classics as "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach", I was over the moon. Stop-motion animation is a dying art, and Selick is one of the few people still keeping the medium alive.
"Coraline" is the story of the eponymous girl of the title: Coraline Jones, a native of Michigan who has moved to an old apartment in Oregon. There's little to do there, and the interactions with the neighbors and her disinterested parents are asinine and boring. Nobody can get Coraline's name right, and nobody listens to her. She feels utterly alone and unloved. Then, one night, she finds a strange door inside of the apartment that leads to another world that is slightly similar to the real world, but this world is magical, there is always something to do, and everyone loves her. This world is watched over by Coraline's Other Mother and Other Father who, like everyone else in this world, have buttons for eyes. Coraline wishes to stay there forever, but in order to do so, she must make a very gruesome sacrifice...
I'm happy to announce that I enjoyed the film. While Selick sacrifices some of the darker elements of the source material, such as the original version of Coraline's final encounter with the Other Father, he still keeps the feel and the tone of the novella intact. All of the essential characters are there, and the film is a great, creepy story for older children (8-12 age range), that still has the power to unnerve. The stop-motion is beautiful, the visuals are full of depth and texture, the colors are vivid and exciting. The film also has some incredible set-pieces that grab you with their complexity and imagination, such as a mouse circus, furniture made of bugs, a man who is made of rats, and so on.
However, the film does have faults. In terms of the plot, it feels as if the novella's central themes of familial love and courage in the face of adversity were slightly downplayed, and a lot of Coraline's character, which reveals itself internally in the novella, is not handled very well. Instead of a mousy, overly curious but sweet girl, in the film she becomes a narcissistic jerk. Since we aren't able to see into her head as we would with a book, it's hard to gain any sympathy for her because the film gives us no explanation for her behavior. Because of all this, the emotional impact of the film is severely weakened.
I'm also not a fan of what I feel is the "Americanization" of the novella, and it isn't just a simple change of locale from England to America that makes me feel this way. The novella has a very dry, witty, essentially British sense of humor, with very subtle jokes and eloquent, British-y dialogue. In the film, however, everyone looks, acts, and talks in a very stereotypically "American" manner. Coraline herself is very loud and annoying (though this is partly due to Dakota Fanning's performance), and the "weirdness"of the supporting characters, such as Mrs. Spink and Forcible, is very blunt and broadly drawn, instead of being quietly discomfiting. As a result, the film loses its sense of place, and relies a bit too much on explaining itself to the audience, rather than letting the audience fill in the blanks for themselves.
The voice acting, surprisingly, is above-average for a modern animated film. Teri Hatcher is the best as the Other Mother. Sweet and lilting one minute, fiery and terrifying the next, she's an absolute joy to listen to, and her vocal performance carries over very well to the animation. Keith David as the slinky, smoky Cat is also a standout. Supporting actors/actresses Ian McShane, John Hodgman, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, and Robert Bailey Jr. do well with what they're given, even if their roles are slightly underwritten.
However, as previously mentioned, I wasn't a fan of Dakota Fanning's performance. She is staggeringly unsubtle, practically shouting almost every line and slowly enunciating over every word, spelling things out to the audience. What's more, she simply doesn't sound invested in the character. It's like they brought her in and just had her read the lines off of a card. Not once did I feel that she became "Coraline" and not "Dakota Fanning badly reciting dialogue".
Despite all this, "Coraline" is a very well-done film, that keeps stop-motion animation alive. It's a visual treat, it has an imaginative story that isn't stiffly moralistic, and most of all, it's just plain good fun! There's something here for both kids and adults, and the film does it without being "edgy" and full of pop culture references. In this modern era, that's an incredible accomplishment.
The DVD of the film is a 2-disc set that comes with both 3D and 2D versions of the film. Unfortunately, the DVD uses plain old anaglyph lenses and subsequently, the 3D effect is lackluster. I'd recommend just watching the 2D version, as the 3D adds absolutely nothing to the film in the form that it's in. The video is very good, the textures are sharp and the colors are vivid. The sound is crisp and well-mixed. The special features include three featurettes and some deleted scenes. The deleted scenes and most of the featurettes are negligible and aren't very interesting. However, where the special features shine is in the 30-40 minute "Behind The Scenes" featurette on the making of the film. It covers all the aspects of stop-motion production, such as the building of sets and costumes, and it even talks a bit about the challenges that Selick had adapting the novel, and the author himself, Neil Gaiman, even shows up a bit to talk about what he thought of the film. It's a really interesting documentary, but unfortunately, it really would have been better if it was longer and went into more detail.
Overall, I'd highly recommend the DVD for the film and for the behind-the-scenes documentary. If you're a fan of Neil Gaiman, get it. If you saw the film in theaters and you liked it, get it. Heck, if you just like really interesting, slightly dark films for kids, get it! Not only might you get something out of it, but so will your kids, and that has to count for something, right?