(2009) *** 1/2 Pg
100 min. Focus Features. Director: Henry Selick. Cast: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Ian McShane.

/content/films/3335/2.jpgWhen all around there is derivative nonsense, it's a rare pleasure to encounter a film that's classy in its allusions and, better yet, inventive or—dare to dream—visionary. A stop-motion-animation classic-to-be (in RealD 3-D, no less), Coraline is a story for children, but also a delight for adults who still value a story well told and hand-crafted aesthetics. Directed by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) from the novel by Neil Gaiman, Coraline is the work of two visionaries who turn out to be blessedly compatible. Dare to dream, indeed.

Ten-year-old Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning) has tired of her parents’ neglect during their busiest time of year. The family has just moved to drab surroundings—what must be the dreariest corner of Portland—and mom and dad (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) are busily writing and editing a gardening book. Coraline's mother puts it bluntly: "I don't have time for you right now...Stay out of my way." So like any child worth her salt, the girl goes exploring, only to find that architectural oddity that always sparks the imagination: a door that opens into a brick wall. When Coraline discovers the little door is an access point to a colorful and lively alternate universe—complete with “other mother” and “other father”—she’s tempted to pack in our world for a life of music, good food and lots of attention. Naturally, there’s a Faustian dark side that makes Coraline’s real home seem sweeter: the parental dopplegangers have buttons sewn in where their eyes should be, and if Coraline wants to stay, she'll have to have some work done as well.

The blue-haired, brown-eyed girl makes a fine heroine: curious and dry-witted, but with a degree of self-interest that proves hurtful to herself and those around her. She's dismissive of Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), an endearingly eager neighbor kid with a dirtbike and an inquiring mind, but she also has a chink of two in her "too cool for school" armor. When Wybie gives her a button-eyed doll that oddly resembles her, Coraline insists, "I'm too old for dolls," but she carries around her "Little Me" all the same. The rest of her effusive neighbors turn out to be curiouser and curiouser: retired English burlesque diva-dowagers Miss April Spink and Miss Miriam Forcible (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) and Russian whirling dervish "The Amazing" Bobinsky (Ian McShane). And how about that stray cat (Keith David, in his most velvety register) that can stroll between universes with impunity?

/content/films/3335/3.jpgSelick keeps the 3D effects subtle in the real world, while the journey through Coraline's personal rabbit hole leads to perspective-popping wonders. Here, her "Other Mother" can cook up a storm, and her ashen dad sings along with a most-unusual player piano (They Might Be Giants supplies the delightful "Other Father Song"), promising, "Everything's right in this world, kiddo." Spink and Forcible spring to life here, too, in a disturbing show that blends 18th-century theater and music hall (Miss Forcible's ample bosom, paired with a handbill for "King Leer" hilariously suggest the duo are better known as sexpots than Shakespearean actors, all Hamlet recitations aside...). And no moment is more surreally exhilarating than Bobinsky's opening act: a dance of jumping mice that would have sent Tchaikovsky and Busby Berkeley racing to the looney bin.

Both in concept and execution, Coraline is wildly creative stuff, and its overstuffed head also makes room for social themes. Gaiman and Selick chide parents for hypocritical or misplaced priorities (garden writers who have no time to garden and, at times, parent), but also children for underestimating their blessings. Fantasy has its place, but for all its wonder, it's a small world after all, and doesn't every hero's journey end relievedly at home? Since it’s in the spooky tradition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Selick’s own The Nightmare Before Christmas, the PG-rated Coraline is not for the youngest tots. That said, kids can take it, and you should take them. Adults, too, will thrill to this eccentric spectacle, with its circus-style production numbers and overall visual inventiveness. Selick's take on Gaiman fulfills the notion that the eyes are the windows to the soul; kids of all ages will open peepers wide for this one.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 7/21/2009

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Coraline hits Blu-ray and DVD in simultaneous special editions, and Blu-ray has the edge in every way (including price: as of this writing, the 2-disc Blu-ray set is cheaper than the 2-disc DVD set at Amazon). Packaged with four pairs of 3D glasses, both sets include a 3D and 2D version of the film, but the high-definition fidelity of the Blu-ray edition can't be beat. Razor-sharp video and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio make the 2D presentation downright flawless, while the 3D version provides the opportunity to get some small sense of the 3D effects seen in properly equipped Real 3D theaters (naturally, sharpness is not a highlight of the home video 3D experience, which relies on old-school anaglyph 3D tech).

Coraline comes with a satisfying complement of bonus features, beginning with a feature commentary with director Henry Selick and composer Bruno Coulais. This track efficiently covers all the bases about the film's development, production and post-production, though you'll also want to check out the featurettes to hear from author Neil Gaiman and the film's voice cast.

In the U-Control department (functional on the 2D version), one can access hours of content in the forms of Tours and Voice Sessions (interviews and video of recording sessions), Picture in Picture (behind-the-scenes footage and more interviews) or Picture in Picture Animatic.

Selick introduces six brief "Deleted Scenes" (8:37, HD), the last being a montage of trims.

The ten-part "The Making of Coraline" (35:53 with "Play All" option, HD) offers a series of primers on stop-motion animation and 3D technology, including the various techniques used to achieve Coraline's effects; design and characters (including voice acting) also get covered. Participants include Selick, author Neil Gaiman and daughter Maddy, art director Tom Proost, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Saunders, Teri Hatcher, Dawn French, John Hodgman, director of photography Pete Kozachik, character fabrication supervisor Georgina Hayns, armaturist Jeremy Spake, lead hair and fur fabricator Suzanne Moulton, lead costume design fabricator Deborah Cook, art director Bo Henry, Fantastic Garden art director Matt Sanders, set dresser Bridget Phelan, supervising animator Anthony Scott, lead animator Trey Thomas, animator Suzanne Twining, lead animator Phil Dale, lead animator Travis Knight, VFX animator John Allan Armstrong, and senior compositors Patrick Wass, Peter Vickery & Aidan Fraser.

"Voicing the Characters" (10:46, HD) hones in on the work of the actors under Selick's direction. We hear from Selick, Fanning, Hatcher, Keith David, Robert Bailey Jr., John Hodgman, Ian McShane, and Saunders & French, and we hear the original casting of Saunders & French before Selick switched their roles (nifty!).

"Creepy Coraline" (5:03, HD) specifically deals with some of the film's weirder effects, discussed by Selick, animator Julianna Cox, Fanning, Hatcher, Hayns, Cook, and mold maker Mattzilla Duron.

The Bonus Disc, a DVD, includes a 2D standard-def presentation of the film and, as a bonus feature, the Selick/Coulais commentary.

As always, Universal also includes My Scenes bookmarking and BD-Live functionality.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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