Movie Review: 3-D 'Coraline' Lacks the Human Dimension

"Coraline," Henry Selick's stop-motion, animated 3-D adventure based on Neil Gaiman's book, keeps us interested with its special effects but never makes us care.
"Coraline," Henry Selick's stop-motion, animated 3-D adventure based on Neil Gaiman's book, keeps us interested with its special effects but never makes us care. (Laika Entertainment)
By Desson Thomson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 6, 2009

As we consume ever more sophisticated forms of animation, it's easy to lose sight of the emotional connections we seek under all the technological fandango.

We admire "WALL E" for the way it evokes the epic science-fiction worlds of an "Alien" or "2001: A Space Odyssey," but we're really moved by the title robot's romance with a hot metallic number named Eve. What would "Toy Story" be without the clash of personalities between warmhearted Woody and brassy Buzz Lightyear? Do we love "Finding Nemo" for the computer-generated fish or a parent's desperate journey to find a lost child?

Watching "Coraline," a darkly delineated children's tale in 3-D, it's easy to admire its imaginative fusion of low tech and high. Its doll-like characters -- some with buttons for eyes -- seem like the inspired creations of a hands-on craft project. And its staccato stop motion hails from an era that never knew the digital age. But with stereoscopic 3-D, high definition and computer-generated effects added to the equation, the movie becomes supercharged with in-your-face palpability. (A caveat: You'll have to find a theater showing the movie in 3-D for the full experience; most theaters around the country will show "Coraline" in the 2-D format.)

We feel as if we could reach out and caress those characters' smoothly rounded faces, or tweak the lacquered strands of their shiny hair. The problem is, we just don't want to hug them.

"Coraline," adapted from Neil Gaiman's enormously successful book, follows an 11-year-old girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning), whose petulant wish to replace emotionally unresponsive adults leads to a nightmarish experience in a parallel universe. Pushing through a secret door to her new home, she finds herself in another world, where charming replicas of her parents -- they're the ones with button eyes -- invite her to live with them. There's a major hitch, of course. Coraline's Other Mother (voiced by Teri Hatcher) makes her a prisoner and demands unyielding devotion.

It's easy to see the stylistic fingerprints of writer-director Henry Selick, who imbued "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach" with such bleak whimsy. "Coraline" resounds with similarly macabre inventiveness. My favorite moment: an opera hall filled with seated Scotty dogs barking their appreciation for the eccentric Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, as the women perform a surreal combination of operetta and trapeze artistry onstage. And I won't soon forget the uber-chilliness of Other Mother, who suggests a "Desperate Housewives" spin on Joan Crawford in "Mommie Dearest."

For all its visually rewarding delights, however, "Coraline" remains an engaging spectacle more than a connective drama. We enjoy the surface design, but we're never so caught up in the story that we lose our awareness of it. Form and content never blur.

We can put that down, chiefly, to the writing. Selick doesn't reach for the kind of universality that would deepen the movie. Other Mother, for instance, never excoriates Coraline for wishing herself into her unwanted situation, reminding the audience disconcertingly that we all have our secret untold desires; that we occasionally wish even our dearest ones away; that the most dangerous prayers are the ones God answers. It's a shame, because Fanning's performance as Coraline is the movie's most emotionally persuasive element. Her assured modulations, from cheeky to sweet, from bored to anguished, should have been part of a bigger, deeper movie. Unfortunately, the screenplay is one humanistic rewrite away from realizing that. Animation's great purpose isn't merely to build more sophisticated superhighways to imagined worlds. It's to show us new footpaths to the human heart.

Coraline (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG and contains scary images, some mild profanity and suggestive humor.

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