(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: With charming images in 3-D animation we have the story of a girl who finds a tunnel to a parallel world where she has two "other" parents who just love her to death. Everything is wondrous in this world until she finds out that ... but that would be telling. This is based on a story by the incomparable fantasy author Neil Gaiman. Somewhere between Gaiman's writing and the rendering on the screen written and directed by Henry Selick, this film loses coherence with too little happening that makes sense. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

One thinks of fantasy as a genre in which anything can happen. Though it seems paradoxical to say it, this means that fantasy is very highly dependent on fixed, even if arbitrary, rules. The viewer has to know what the ground rules are. In DRACULA we know what kills vampires. If at the end Dracula gets up and we find that a stake through the heart really does not work, we would feel cheated. Suppose Frodo threw the ring into the fires and it turned into a dragon that kills him, and Sauron is as powerful as ever. What would be the point of the story? ALICE IN WONDERLAND is fun whimsy, but one never really empathizes with Alice. The real world does not have to make sense, but a fantasy really world does if the viewer/reader is going to buy into the plot. If anything can happen there is no point to the hero's striving.

Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is a pert young girl who moves with her family into a strange house with some stranger tenants. There is an odd Russian (Ian McShane) in the third floor who is doing something unexplained with mice. There are two sisters who live in the basement. These people are all weird eccentrics. But when Coraline gets frustrated with her parents' lack of attention to her, she focuses her attention on a strange little locked door in the wall. After some effort she opens this unused door and find it leads to a mysterious tunnel into the head of John Malkovich. No, I am getting my movies confused. At the end of the tunnel is a house identical to hers with a mother and a father who look like her parents but they have buttons instead of eyes. It seems everybody in this world has buttons for eyes. These parents are just like Coraline's own parents, but they love her more. Where here the food her parents serve is something of a dog's breakfast, her "other" parents serve her delicious food, much of which seems chosen to be the short route to the diabetes ward. The Button World parents just love Coraline so much that they cannot bear to let her leave. So they may not. And why should Coraline want to go home to parents who are so indifferent and oblivious to her presence?

Neil Gaiman is fast becoming to the fantasy film with Philip K. Dick is to the science fiction film. His CORALINE in the film version is a story in dire need of just a few ground rules to make sense of what we are seeing on the screen. It is an interesting fantasy film done in a visual style reminiscent of Tim Burton animation. And the film's stop-motion animation is even more impressive in 3-D. But at a certain point it is just not clear what is happening and how the characters' problems have to be fixed. There are questions such as, who has multiple manifestations and why do not other characters? What does it signify that when Coraline collects certain artifacts, that the world around them suddenly seems to turn gray? Nor do we really know when the story is over. What makes this particularly puzzling is that the story is by Neil Gaiman, who usually is a master of the fantasy art form. I have not read the book, but my suspicion is that it would make a lot more sense. Henry Selick's previous fantasies, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH and THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, are good-looking films, but may not be completely engaging fantasies. Reportedly Selick makes some major revisions to the story adding a major character, Wybie, who is not in the book. And Coraline can slip between the worlds in ways she could not in the book. Perhaps my problems with CORALINE were just me being dense, but too often I was not sure what was happening and why.

Our second button fantasy of the season is visually lush and the stop-motion works as well as the emotional core of the film. But even so good an effort in so many different ways fails if the viewer is left confused by scenes that should be better explained. I rate CORALINE a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. For those who sit through the credits there is a reward of a tour de force scene of 3-D that has nothing to do with the plot but is still nice to see. In fact it is worth some extra effort to see this film in 3-D.

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					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper