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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Note: This review pertains to the 2-D version of the film.

Computer animation has revolutionized the movie business, but I'm beginning to think that there are certain cases where a more old-school style actually better serves particular stories. Case in point: Coraline, which was made using the same kind of stop-motion animation that director Henry Selick used in The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. Could Coraline have been made using computers? Sure, but I somehow don't think it would be as effective. The story largely takes place in another dimension where everything is strange and unfamiliar. The slightly herky-jerky quality of stop-motion animation adds a surreal quality to things that is vital.

Our heroine is the title character, Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning), a tempestuous 11 year-old girl whose parents have moved her to a dilapidated old apartment building out in the boondocks of Oregon. Her only friend is a weird kid named Wybie whose grandmother owns the place. Coraline protests the move to her folks, who are far too busy working to take her seriously. Mrs. Jones (Teri Hatcher) in particular has little time to consider her daughter's demands for fun, treats, or attention. The girl's only real source of amusement comes from the building's other tenants, a circus performer named Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane) and two aging actresses, Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French).

One afternoon, Coraline discovers a small door, slightly hidden from view and covered in wallpaper. Digging the door out, she finds that a secret tunnel lies behind it. Being a child of natural curiosity, Coraline of course crawls through it and ends up in another dimension. The new place looks similar to her own, except that everything is perfect. Her "Other Mother" plies her with yummy treats and a tricked-out bedroom, while her "Other Father" pays attention to her and creates a garden masterpiece for her to play in. There's just one catch: these Other Parents have buttons for eyes, as do the Other versions of Wybie and the neighbors. Coraline sneaks back into the alternate universe every day, but eventually discovers that its utopian quality is part of a trap. Other Mother has a nefarious plan (which I won't spoil here) that only starts with her desire to sew buttons into Coraline's eyes. Her only ally in trying to foil Other Mother is Wybie's cat, who can talk in this dimension.

I'm a sucker for movies that are weird and odd and unpredictable. Coraline is all of those things. You never know where it's headed next (unless, of course, you've already read the book by Neil Gaiman on which it is based). Here's a picture that finds room for dancing mice, ghostly children, the world's worst burlesque show, a mechanical spider-like creature, and a theater full of yapping Scottish Terriers. I love the fantasy of the story and, even more so, the way Selick visualizes it. Parents need to be aware that the film gets rather scary in the second half, bordering on a PG-13 rating, but I think slightly older kids will love having their imaginations tweaked by the imagery.

Stop-motion animation, which involves manipulating actual figures one frame at a time to create the illusion of movement, has improved in the 15 or so years since The Nightmare Before Christmas became a modern classic. Developments have made it possible for characters to be more expressive and for movement to be more fluid, while still retaining the aforementioned herky-jerky quality that is its trademark. Coraline is just dazzling to look at, the kind of film where the frame seems to be bursting with things to discover. There's a lot of cool stuff happening in the foreground, but even the backgrounds are packed with more detail.

The story comes complete with a moral about learning to appreciate one's parents, although the real selling point is the mayhem. Coraline, like many of Grimm's Fairy Tales, has a point to make, yet it's the gleefully nightmarish stuff before the moral that is the most fun.

( 1/2 out of four)

Coraline is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, some language and suggestive humor. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.

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