Monday, February 09, 2009


I love computer animation, I love Neil Gaiman (going back all the way to his Sandman comic book series in the early 90's), I even love 3-D movies so long as the 3-D is there to enhance the story rather than be the story. So it was that Mel and I went to go see the new Laika Studios release Coraline today, at the theater. 

Short version: Wow. Worth every penny to see this on a big screen in 3-D. Except for the part that this is clearly being marketed to children, and I fear for the dreams of the 4 year old that was sitting six seats down from us. There is a *lot* of very frightening imagery, only magnified by the 3-D effect, I would not take any child younger than, oh, 10. And even then it would depend on the child. 

Long version: Wow. 

First of all, Coraline was made by Laika Studios, which is based in my hometown of Portland, OR. As you can imagine, there has been serious hoopla about the film here, with the premiere at a theater where they actually put on *plays*. That's f*cked up. We had Teri Hatcher in a strapless dress in downtown Portland. Think Deadwood and you won't be far off from what Portland looks like compared to Hollywood.

(Note to Portlanders: I'm trying to scare them away from moving here. Don't screw this up by complaining that Portland is an awesome city.)

Anyway, it's kind of a big deal. My wife did some modeling for Laika a couple of years ago when they were working up mockups of the sets, and they liked her so much they gave her a mini-tour, so *she* was excited about it. 

I won't blow the plot for everyone, other than to say that this is your age-old story of a child unhappy with her parents and wishing for a more interesting life, only to find herself the victim of that very thing. The final message, of course, is that your life is just fine and you should try to see the value in what you have. I'm all for that, but it's a bit trite on it's own. Fortunately, Neil Gaiman (who also wrote "The Thief of Always" which has a very similar message) manages to make things interesting along the way through how the story is told as much as what the story is.

Like many fairy stories, things come in threes. Coraline (the protagonist) makes three trips to the other world where she is exposed to three fantastic tableaus, certainly the high points of the film in many ways, exploiting the 3-D effect for all it's worth. Then there are three mini-quests that must be undertaken. Gaiman knows his mythology and storytelling, as anyone who has read his American Gods novel or Sandman series knows, so this isn't a huge leap. Like Lucas with the original Star Wars trilogy, he leverages classical storytelling and archetypes to produce a yarn that is both familiar and satisfying.

Which leads me to the 3-D effects. The glasses are polarized rather than tinted, which I think makes for a much better effect. If you've ever seen the old Captain Eo "ride" at Disneyland back in the day, you get a very similar effect - object leap from the screen on a regular basis, fortunately for my 45 year old eyes with some decent breaks to let your head relax a bit. Frankly, I think the effect would make things considerably scarier for small children. As we left the theater, I did wonder if I enjoyed the movie because of the 3-D or in spite of it to some extent. There is no question that it was immersive and engaging and right on the edge of just the right amount. I did find myself thinking two thoughts, though - A) No smokie da magic ciggies before this movie, and B) keep breathing and your motion sickness will abate, the movie's just started and you'll adjust. 

There are some really spectacular scenes that I'll mention for those who plan to see it in the theater, and I don't think I'll be spoiling too much by doing so. First is the clever "de-res" effect that is used in a few places, especially toward the end. I can only imagine that these were the sorts of things you'd think would have been in the author's head as he wrote the book. Second, of course, is the three fantastical scenes I mentioned above, all of which are incredibly creative and engaging, although there's one part that will put your eyes out if you aren't careful. We'll just call it the DDD scene (get it? 3 D's? get it?) 

One other thing that I noticed, and that I *think* was a creative decision rather than an artifact of the filmmaking and/or 3-D rendering process, is that the movie feels like there's a little bit of jitteriness to it, almost as if you're watching an old movie. It's very subtle, but sometimes it feels like stop-motion photography, a la Ray Harryhausen (Sinbad, anyone?) I noticed some puppetry credits, so perhaps this was both intentional and part of the filming process. 

With so many 3-D movies coming out in the last year or so, almost all aimed at children, it's nice to get one that's aimed a little older and darker. I will be very interested to see if the DVD that comes out will have 3-D specs that come with it, although you'd really need two pairs for many consumers, meaning a much larger box (these specs were very nice, being plastic instead of cardboard, and fitting nicely over my own glasses). 

As a Portlander, I am proud that such a well-produced movie came out of our provincial little burgh, and hope that you get a chance to see it in the theaters while you can. For my part, I will say that it was almost certainly the best theater-going experience I've had in years, which usually feels like I'm in the Sensory Overload Ride at the You're Too Freakin' Old theme park (see 300 et al). 

As a final note, I'll also mention the music, which was done in part by a couple of very good Eastern European children's choirs, and even Ms Hatcher takes a singing role at one point (which I didn't realize until I'd seen the credits). I found it to be very engaging while not being obtrusive, which is very high praise from me. I'll also note that the scene where the piano plays the man (not a typo) actually plays the correct notes on the piano. I can't tell you the last time I've seen that in a film, usually actors are told to just wave their hands around, that no one knows what they're doing anyway. Drives me nuts. In this movie, even the animation gets it right. Well done!

Highly recommended if you like Gaiman, animation, 3-D, fairy tales, mythology, or all of the above. 

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