Directed by Henry Selick
Running Time: 101 min.
Find our eyes, and our souls will be free.”That should be the credo of every film animator who pretends to make innocuous commercial entertainment. But it comes from Henry Selick’s deeply amusing Coraline—an animated film that might be too good for children. It arrives in time to expose the atrocious Wall-E.
of a lonely pre-teen girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning) whose move to a
new town rouses fears about her parents and strange neighbors, is told
through images that pop-out at you in 3-D—particularly a ghostly trio
of gilded African-American cherubim. These remenants of mysterious
history and endangered innocence plea for vision and freedom. Such an
image goes to the heart of moviegoers’ cultural identity—that’s why it
both spooks and charms little Coraline and will be hard to forget. It’s
nothing like the cartoonish pabulum foisted onto the public in
ravishing junk like The Incredibles and Ratatouille or just plain junk like Cars, Finding Nemo, Ice Age and the essentially forgettable Wall-E.
Those films keep animation infantile, an industry convention critics bow before as if Wall-E was Wall Street. But thanks to Monster House, Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir and Coraline, traditional Hollywood animation looks like a babysitter’s ghetto.The day I saw Wall-E taught me about the uselessness of current family cartoons: It was a late Monday afternoon following Wall-E’s weekend box-office “win.” School was on holiday, yet an adult, a child and myself were the only people at the matinee. Apparently, despite critical hosannas, word-of-mouth had already pegged Wall-E as
no fun. Liberated school kids had better things to do than watch a
dystopia that then morphed into saccharine, manipulative Pixar formula.
Coraline’s childhood trauma is entirely
different; its uncanny embellishment of adolescent
uncertainties—aligned with America’s hidden fears—deepen the genre.
Both the willful, sharp-nosed, cobalt-haired white heroine and her
hangdog, nappy-haired new friend Wybie (voiced by Robert Bailey Jr.)
are prone to anxiety; they give the lie to Wall-E’s overconceptualized
“family-movie” fluff. Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s book doesn’t
condescend to “little” moviegoers (that’s a marketer’s concern).Through
Coraline’s fascination with dolls and dreams, Selick contemplates
creativity, neurosis, intellectual pride and hungry curiosity—beginning
with a credit sequence where unseen hands refurbish a doll and cast it
into the universe.This wondrous opening reproves Wall-E’s futuristic,
sci-fi fakery. Reviving the universal practice of craftsmanship
surpasses a detached reference to space exploration that disregards
human need. Our eyes and souls are deadened by Hollywood animation like
Wall-E with its whirring, squeaky trash-compactor hero, an
anthropomorphic Everycreature, whose garbage-hording reduces what used
to be called “the humanities” to nameless, disowned junk.
post-apocalyptic notion summarizes the critical constabulary’s contempt
for humanist cinema (ever since the child-robot’s sojourn in A.I.:Artificial Intelligence was accused of lacking credible emotion). Congratulating viewers for both their worst thoughts and sappiest sentiments, Wall-E is an animated version of the pessimism in Paranoid Park (tarnishing skateboarding), a bloodless version of There Will Be Blood (rusty
anomie).The Chaplinesque ending contradicts the film’s snarky disbelief
in humanity: Humans are sloths and the lovestory between a Dumpster and
a robot steals the boy/alien spiritual exchange of E.T. (and Stephen Chow’s CJ7) and trivializes it. Wall- E’s fans accept Pixar’s deliberate imitation of E.T.’s body and sound seeking the negation of Spielberg’s values in E.T. But Coraline preserves
basic humanist values—its only hipness comes from Gaiman’s anagram
title.The twisty scrutiny of Coraline’s relationships is primary,
whether it’s tension from her parents or puzzlement about eccentric
immigrant neighbors, including inescapable Wybie, the nuisance next
door. Parenthood, adulthood and friendship are presentiments of
real-life angst so Selick gives Coraline’s nightmares the personalized
look of handmade artifacts. Dream imagery is pale then colorful,
realistic then psychedelic—outclassing Guillermo Del Toro’s cornball
creepiness in Pan’s Labyrinth.Those goofy, inexact, overreaching parallels to Spanish fascism frustrated the fantasy genre. Fact is, Pan’s paranoia is easily dispelled by politics and resistance; Coraline goes scarily deeper into psychological dread, recalling Gil Kenan’s underrated Monster House. Selick doesn’t hide behind technology like Wall-E’s futuristic cliches or Del Toro’s Fangoria grostesques;
he embraces fundamental human experience, locating it in a child’s
discovery of her id through knowledge of a new place and its history.
Selick treats the animated film as a legitimate art form, not the family-movie pretense that critics ascribed to Wall-E but then illogically praised the film for transcending. Relating Wall-E to
Samuel Beckett as many did misunderstood the film’s purpose—and
Beckett’s. Selick combines childlike wonder with pop mythology, not for
a freakshow like his Tim Burton collaboration The Nightmare Before Christmas but
with subtler undercurrents: a velveteen tunnel, an imprisoning mirror,
plus coddling-then-frightening parental “others” recalling the
mythologies of Cocteau’s fantasy films and the Mother/Meat sequence of
Bunuel’s Los Olvidados.
While Wall-E pretended
something “new”—eco-consumerism—Pixar/Disney’s aim is to inculcate
technological consumption in all audiences. But Coraline uses
genuinely new digital 3-D technology for greater effect. Selick knows
the secret that the Old Master of stop-motion animation Ray Harryhausen
employed on The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts: fantasy
needs a lifelike quality. Harryhausen’s stick figures inspire the
three-dimensional virtues of Selick’s puppets, improving on the fluidity
and solidity of Selick’s The Life Aquatic sea creatures.These
layered images (snow globes, stained-glass, various dolls) are so
distinctly photographed they resemble two-dimensional storybook
illustrations or classic cartoons. But Coraline’s also
textured—jeweled and brocaded. It’s like looking at Christian LaCroix
designs close-up—aesthetic qualities that the puppet cineastes Quay
Brothers and Jan Svankmajer never achieved.
Wall-E’s worst offense re-runs discarded scraps of Hello, Dolly! to
cynically reduce mankind’s history to nothing—omitting the immortal
Barbra Streisand/Louis Armstrong duet. (Critics ignored the financial
niggardliness of that clip—avoiding Streisand royalties—perhaps because
they don’t respect Hello, Dolly! or its musical version of Thornton Wilder’s profound sentiments.) Yet look how Coraline’s artfulness
peaks with those gold cherubim set against a starry Van Gogh night sky.
Desire is conflated with anxiety, wonder and art history. Sometimes
Coraline is so beautiful it’s humbling.
But it’s not
perfect. There’s a huge hole in the narrative that loses the
Streisand/Armstrong interracial significance of Wybie’s grandmother’s
appearance. Selick doesn’t explain who makes the credit sequence doll
which would enhance Coraline’s obsession with button eyes—Twilight Zone
symbolism as shocking as Wybie losing his ability to speak. Clarifying
the source of these startling images would enhance the cherubim’s cry
for freedom, completing Gaiman’s multicultural subtext. Wall-E’s critical consensus doesn’t confirm the discovery of art, but the denial of culture, Coraline sees culture itself as the beginning of human connection.