From a commercial film industry standard (if there were ever such a thing), I can see the logic behind taking the risk. A popular story by popular writer Neil Gaiman. A proven stop motion director, Henry Selick. A chance to properly show of the genuine animation ability of Travis Knight and a phalanx of others, the best artisans in prop making, costuming, hair, lighting, sets, armatures, etc., were all engaged for years creating this film. I can only imagine the blood sweat and tears that went into it. But as I watched it, even I, a stop motion fanatic, couldn't see any value in having gone through all of that time and expense.
A few specifics: I'll have to now read the book Coraline by Neil Gaiman as I'll want to separate out the screen play from the original story. I understand the needs of a visual story in relation to one written, but I'll be hunting for value as I saw nothing of that on screen.
I don't need narratives to display redemption or even dramatic resolution to make me happy. But I do require my protagonists to be worthy of caring about what happens to them. I found the Coraline character, selfish and self-centered, ungrateful and neglected by parents that were the same. If the writers had her help clean up the bowl of candy that shattered on the ground rather than leaving it for her hosts, for example, I would have had a signal she was at least considerate. Even after being strong and brave to release her parents from the trap, I didn't notice any change in Coraline or her parents. Coraline was plucky and unafraid from the beginning and her parents absorbed in their work ignoring her, only happy when they were accepted by a publisher, I guess? There wasn't any transformation on anyone's part through the story's telling. Yes, ghost children's souls were freed, Wybie was proven as friend and black in a roundabout way (huh?), the Witch the banished in the well? Coraline became helpful and had a change in attitude. I guess.
The antagonist's goals were not clear enough either, by the acid-tripping end of it I could sort of parse out that the Belle Dame was an evil witch that set her cap for children, lured them with treats and wonders in order to eat them, contain their souls, or somesuch. But it wasn't clear and there were truck-sized loopholes in that premise, if that was it.
The cat character was the most engaging because it seemed to be the only one in the world who was able to be rational. But even it wasn't wonderful to look at. I felt the hand-crafted charm of stop motion was lost in something about the film, perhaps the clean-up stage with the aide of computers. Something. Something about all the frame-by-frame animation didn't make it through, not to the heart. Something prevented the hand-work involved from reaching through the project itself. Another recent stop motion feature, Corpse Bride, suffered from this puzzle too. It had zero advantage over a cgi animation, it was too slickly animated for its own good. And even with the deliberate stepping down of frame rates to "look" hand-made, it still doesn't.
But even if it did, there wasn't anything to live with about the film, as is the case with movies these days.
Technically I think the makers may have made two fundamental errors that cost them a lot in terms of the value of stop motion's aesthetic. First, I understand the initial concept art, after Japanese illustrator Tadahiro Uesugi's sketches were polished and rendered on computer in order to prepare them for output to a 3D rapid plotter. This obviously took away the human sculptural quality of the characters which was further banished with the digital clean up used to remove telltale signs and lines left by replacement facial feature components. Perhaps nothing the filmmakers could do after that approach would gain back any humanity in the characters. The human hand in stop motion is the entire appeal. Where was the advantage of it in this project?
Here's what I admired about the Coraline production.
They finished it.
The landscape sets were jaw-droppingly spectacular. I felt the vast endlessness of Portland hillsides and forests all around as a real place, not one I'd like to visit, but real and rendered perfectly.
Of course, from the behind the scenes video (links will be hooked up once I'm back on my computer, laptops suck! update: looks like they have all been taken down to include them on the dvd instead. update: I found 2 more clips buried in the well of the bloated and annoying Coraline site here) we learned about the attention to detail involved, such as the microscopic hand-knit sweaters, the frame by frame plastic rusty shower water, etc. It was all rendered almost too perfectly. I would never have appreciated how much work went into the film without these videos describing it. The five-mile silk wig for the theatrical number would have rolled right over my head, unaware of the labor it took.
Using pink popcorn as cherry blossoms. That killed it was so beautiful. Coraline's hair movement is an inconceivable stop motion visual achievement.
I liked the opening credits in 3D, especially how the frame of lace stood on it's own layer. I was so hopeful watching that as I thought it meant that the whole movie would be that well thought through.
I liked the entry to Mr. B's apartment with it's lovingly built tiny raised paneling details. Many of the props had this particular quality of detail; the packages for Mr. B, the tiny dirigible passing through the portico's window, the sliver of moon on the farthest back layer of the 3D kitchen.
I loved the hand-made box campaignused to promote the film among geeks like me and how they premiered the film far far away from Hollywood.
I will buy my copy of Coraline on dvd to watch over and over with appreciation for what was done masterfully and maybe learn to love what didn't grab me on the first viewing. I feel like crying when I see how hard so many talented individuals worked their asses off on this and what they must have endured to make it.
UPDATE: Enui kindly directed readers to the Harper Collins preview of the book, which I'm enjoying very much more already
Later (bleery-eyed from online reading): Read every word of the story and was very surprised at how faithful the screenplay was to the book. Certain hard to convey ideas in it were not translatable to film and certain too objectionable implications were left out as well. Certain plot devices were added, such as Wybie and the happy garden character wrap up so useful for movie-telling. There were just two tiny omissions between book to screen, two little ideas that would have made all the pointless rest of it worth enduring. As Nofby pointed out in the comments, Coraline's definition of bravery being the strength of character to do what's right precisely when one is scared. That it isn't bravery if one isn't aware of the danger and truly scared. And the realization that Coraline didn't want to have whatever she wanted like the Beldame was offering her. That she would greatly prefer to have her genuine life, with all of its irritations, rather than an illusory life. This was the pivotal point of discernment that enabled Coraline to appreciate the life she had. Perhaps the movie makers felt these ideas were communicated sufficiently by the characterization of Coraline. But as an audience member, I'd have to say not so.:
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