The stop-motion, animated feature "Coraline" is a tour de force of imagination.
Though made to be shown in stereoscopic 3-D, even in 2-D it is vivid and rich with a panoply of colors and strange and interesting characters. But for all of its technical wonder and labor-intensive filming — the characters are three-dimensional figures that are moved ever so slightly, a single frame is shot, they're moved and another frame is shot — it's hard to enthusiastically recommend this film for children.
"Caroline" is a dark and sinister narrative which takes a young girl's fantasy and turns it into a gothic nightmare.
Starring the voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Robert Bailey Jr., Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders
Directed by Henry Selick
Of course all fairy tales have a distinctly dark side to them. Dorothy follows the yellow brick road only to meet the Wicked Witch. Alice falls down the rabbit hole into a world while fanciful is not simply benign. And certainly Harry Potter, for all of his deft ability with magic, encounters evil that takes many forms and threatens his very existence.
And so it is with Coraline who has recently moved from Michigan to Ashland. She and her parents have moved into a Victorian rooming house called The Pink Palace filled with eccentric boarders.
Feeling lonely and bored, and finding her parents distracted and cranky as they work intensely on a gardening catalogue (her mother is especially curt and preoccupied), she explores the house and soon discovers a hidden door in her room that opens into a narrow tunnel (a rabbit hole?) and a parallel world. In this mirror universe, however, her new parents are attentive to her every need, and her room wonderfully inviting. The only disconcerting aspect is that everyone she meets has buttons instead of eyes. Something she is willing to overlook.
So seductive is this new world, where flowers bloom in the moonlight, where all is a kaleidoscope of colors, she begins to find it harder and harder to return to her real life and her real parents. And, of course, her new mother encourages her to remain forever.
It all seems so perfect. But as a talking cat suggests, perhaps there is more to this parallel world than first meets the eye (or button). And perhaps all of this good will and attention is a bit suspicious.
What child doesn't fantasize about a world in which they are the center of attention, a world in which they feel powerful and have more than a modicum of control over their own lives. Or a world suddenly absent parents who draw boundaries and make rules and all seems so arbitrary.
The culmination of this fantasy was captured perfectly in the film "Home Alone," when Kevin wakes up in his house and discovers everyone is gone. He wished them gone, and suddenly his wish has come true. He quickly sets out to create a life in which he rules. It's a rush until it isn't.
Like Kevin, Coraline is soon confronted with more than she can handle and what was a thrill becomes deeply frightening. Will she be able to find her way back to her real world and once again be able to embrace her parents? Nothing is certain.
What is surprising about "Coraline" is that none of the characters are particularly attractive. Even Coraline herself is feisty and a bit ill-tempered. That's not to say that she should be Disneyesque, ala Cinderella; but there has to be an emotional bridge built between the young audience and Coraline. Yet no one is particularly attractive in this film, not even a young neighbor, Wybie, who wants to befriend Coraline; in return, she accuses him of being a stalker.
Young children ever so easily blur the lines between what is real and what is fantasy and might find the last half of "Coraline" too intense, its foreshadowed sinister edge morphing into full-blown evil.
The strength of this film is that it is so wonderfully imagined. Based on Neil Gaiman's book of the same name, which has sold over a million copies worldwide, there clearly is something about the story that resonates with kids. No doubt, all kids love to be scared, a little. Call it the jeepers-creepers effect. On the larger than life screen, however, its impact may be more than some youngsters can handle.