Henry Selick is a — or maybe the — director of stop-motion animated features. Stop-motion being the labor-intensive process that it is, Selick’s been directing since 1981 and only just completed his fourth feature, Coraline. And if you didn’t catch box-office disaster Monkeybone, chances are the last thing you remember from this guy is 1996’s James And The Giant Peach.
So what does a 13-year wait get you? Quite a lot, as it happens. Horror film producers have been trying to revive 3-D technology for a few years, but the application there is obvious — flying axes and the like. Here, Selick uses the same technology for more playful purposes. Although Coraline — the story of a girl who finds a tiny doorway leading to an alternate universe with seemingly nicer parents — is quite scary, Selick wisely avoids using 3-D for shock effects. 3-D objects don’t leap out like bogeymen — instead the whole texture of the film is crisply three-dimensional, and when objects and characters do occasionally seem to come off the screen — a needle, some papier-mache flying bugs — the effect is more magical than menacing.
Of course, being adapted from the work of Neil Gaiman, this story is all about the dark underside of magic. Coraline’s home life is boring and her parents seem, if not neglectful, then certainly snippy and impatient with her. The alternate-world parents, by contrast, are fun and creative — the mom is actually a good cook (unlike Coraline’s real mom), and the dad plants a garden full of Coraline’s favorite flowers and writes fun music that sounds suspiciously like They Might Be Giants. The neighbors are also decidedly more excellent — the fussy spinsters in the basement apartment become lithe, beautiful acrobats performing for an audience of appreciative Scottish terriers.
Naturally, there’s a price to be paid for paradise, and Selick handles the alternative world’s transition from idyll to desolation with remarkable aesthetic grace. (The super-abstraction of the spidery Other-Mother’s web at the climax of the film, in particular, marries the existential horror of early 20th-century art to the Oedipal terrors implicit in fairy tales.)
The weaknesses of the film are few and mostly seem to stem from the source material. (Throwing the cat — you will know what I mean when you get there — seems particularly lame and unworthy, a moment of writerly desperation.) But in fairness to Gaiman, Coraline is one of the few modern fairy tales to make personal strength and courage in young girls not only the key to the narrative, but completely natural. Although Coraline receives assistance from friends — a neighbor boy, the wise and mysterious cat, the dotty neighbor ladies — this help is only ever temporarily useful. Ultimately Coraline has to stand up to the Other-Mother by herself, relying on her own wits, fueled by on her own admirable determination. There’s something quite refreshing about this little girl, who’s neither boyish nor cutesy — just a serious, stubborn kid.
The voice cast is full of excellent and famous names. Some are perfectly fine in their roles (Dakota Fanning in the lead, Teri Hatcher as the Mother and the Other-Mother), some are throwaways (Ian McShane as Mr. Bobinsky), and some are about what you’d expect (British wacky ladies Dawn and French as the daft neighbors). But Selick scores big by casting Keith David, best known to me as Rowdy Roddy Piper’s pal in They Live, but perhaps known to you for his role as King in Platoon or the voice of Spawn on Todd McFarlane’s animated series. David isn’t a famous actor, but he’s an absolute pro who delivers the goods every time. From the moment the Cat begins to speak in those low, masculine, mysterious tones, you’re absolutely mesmerized. While the dialogue only hints at this most obliquely, the powerful, resonant sound of David’s voice gives us, almost by itself, the sense that the Cat and the Other-Mother belong to an existence much deeper and much less fleeting than individual human lives. It’s a great performance, one made all the more startling by Selick’s character design, which envisions this divine, awe-inspiring spirit animal as a mangy, skinny old thing with wide yellow eyes and ragged ears.