I review a fair amount of children's and family movies, and often my eyes hurt from me rolling them so much because too many of these films rely on tiredly predictable plots, stupid animal jokes, morals so blatant that even the youngest audience members must be fed up, and poop jokes. (The same could be said about comedy films supposedly for grown-ups, but we'll argue that another time.) The idea seems to be that if a movie is squeaky clean and suitable for all ages, it doesn't have to be very good.
On the other end of the spectrum, I also watch well-made films like Wall-E and Ratatouille and now Coraline -- films that I enjoy very much. But are these really family films? How many children will like these movies, and what ages? Coraline is a bit scary at times and some kids are going to have trouble with it. But for children and adults who can appreciate the experience of a darker movie, Coraline is gorgeously fantastic, in all senses of the word.
Henry Selick, who directed The Nightmare Before Christmas (that's right, it wasn't Tim Burton) also directed Coraline, which he adapted from Neil Gaiman's young-adult novel. Like Nightmare, the film is stop-motion animation, although Coraline was shot in 3-D. Coraline also has a much stronger and more complex story, with more vivid characters. The title character (Dakota Fanning) is a clever girl who moves with her family to a strange new house. Her parents never seem to listen to her or do anything she'd like, and the neighbors are all weird or pesky. But at night, Coraline finds a door into a parallel world, full of surprises. There's even an Other Mother and Other Father who lavish attention and treats on Coraline. And yet, she senses that this other world may not exactly be Paradise.
Selick has expanded Gaiman's almost bare-bones style from the novel by supplying more backstory, giving the minor characters more depth and screen time, and fleshing out the original story to give the film even more of a fairytale quality -- events happening in threes, for example, and Coraline's attitude toward the Other World changing more gradually. Coraline also gets a friend her age, a boy named Wybie, and although the cynical part of me suspects he was put into the film to make it more attractive to boy audiences, his character is not at all superfluous and fits well in the film.
The movie is populated with gloriously colorful creatures -- Coraline's downstairs neighbors are retired actresses, played by Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, and a joy to watch in both of Coraline's worlds. Teri Hatcher voices the mothers in both worlds, and is able to play one role with subtlety while letting loose with the other. Ian McShane has a high time as a Russian acrobat trying to train mice for a circus, and Keith David voices a cat that would stylishly rip the throat out of any family-film flatulent hamsters or annoying raccoons. The "ghost children" are a little stilted and awkward, with dialogue that was more suitable in Gaiman's novel than in Selick's more Americanized movie, but fortunately they're rarely the center of attention.
Selick's style of stop-motion animation is a treat to watch even with a weaker story, and Coraline has some visually stunning set pieces, most set in the Other World: a garden, a troupe of performing mice, and the world's strangest theater. I saw the movie in 3-D, and the effects enhanced the film without being obtrusive or annoying. I think you could see the movie without the 3-D format and still marvel at the visuals.
I admit I have a weakness for movies about imaginative little girls who feel put-upon and misunderstood, whether they're made for children (Matilda) or adults (Pan's Labyrinth). We won't speculate on what this says about my own childhood, but I would have loved Coraline when I was seven or eight ... or ten. Even now, when I'm the right age to sympathize with Coraline's real mother, I'm also right there with the daughter, exasperated by a world where no one is listening to her or pronouncing her name correctly. You don't have to be a child to be enchanted by the world of this movie.
Coraline has a well-earned PG rating, and definitely falls on the dark side of the fairytale spectrum. It isn't gory or excessively violent (certainly not as much as Prince Caspian), but there are some pretty frightening threats, and the peril that main characters often face can seem real and intense. It's similar in tone at times to Spirited Away -- if you think your kids can handle the Miyazaki film, they should be fine with Coraline.