“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 Selik’s deeply amusing Coraline—an animated film that might be too good for children. It arrives in time to expose the atrocious Wall-E.
Coraline’s story 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 revenants 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 over-conceptualized “family-movie” fluff. Selik’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, Selik 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. This 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 love-story 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 Selik 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. Selik doesn’t hide behind technology like Wall-E’s futuristic clichés 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.
Selik 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. Selik 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. Selik 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 Selik’s puppets, improving on the fluidity and solidity of Selik’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. Selik 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.
Directed by Henry Selick, Running Time: 101 min.
Trackback from your site.