Saturday, February 07, 2009


(There are no spoilers below.)

Coraline is a catalog of wonders. It has enough imagination for five feature films. Unfortunately, it only has enough story and characterization for a half hour special.

While Henry Selick is a very gifted art director and director, he did himself no favours by writing the script. His understanding of story structure, scene construction and characterization is extremely weak. The plot takes forever to get started; the film relies on a parade of imaginative visual ideas to hold the audiences' attention until that point, but I found myself losing interest.

Once the story does get started, the villain is poorly motivated. While the villain wants something, she has possessed it in the past and repeatedly abandoned it. There is no explanation for her previous loss of interest or why she wants it again. The film's climax, while exciting due to Selick's ability as a director, is contrived. Fantasy films are devilishly hard to do well; in an environment where anything can happen, rules are necessary to keep the story honest. This film is sorely lacking rules. It also lacks logic with regard to certain props.

The relationship between the film's real world and the film's fantasy world is confused. Some in the real world know something about the fantasy world yet others, who directly experience the fantasy world, know nothing. There is no explanation as to why some characters know more than others.

There are two competing strains within each animated film maker. There is the magician who seeks to dazzle the audience with beauty and artistic surprises and the dramatist intent on saying something about the human condition. In Selick, the magician has the upper hand.

Coraline has strong echoes of The Wizard of Oz and Spirited Away, and while it can compete with these films in the area of visual delight, it compares poorly in every other way. There is fantastic work in this film, but it's built on a weak dramatic foundation. With a stronger script, this film would have been an instant classic. Instead, it's just eye candy.


J. J. Hunsecker said...

"Unfortunately, it only has enough story and characterization for a half hour special."

That's what I was afraid of. In the past, Selick has proven that he isn't much good at telling a story. Both The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach suffered from this. (How can anyone go wrong with a Roald Dahl story?)

David said...

I see what you're saying about the character motivation and the story points, but I liked the magic show! What can I say?

It just swept over me and I was happy to enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment. I was totally captivated visually, but the dramatic thrills hinted in the basic concept are never seized upon. She gets magical objects without any trials, she suddenly knows things she shouldn't know simply because it is convenient to the plot, and Coraline herself doesn't have much of a dramatic arc.

Selick's writing is certainly weak in many places and a better screenwriter could have milked some of the primal forces lurking in the story, but many of the most egregious failures of the story are Gaiman's. I read the book a couple of years ago and found myself frustrated with many of the same lapses in storytelling (ie. the magic stone).

But that George Pal-ish mouse circus in 3d? I could have watched that all day.

Nancy said...

Great review, Mark. I thought there was also material that appeared in the HARRY POTTER movies and NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. The fact that Henry Selick made NIGHTMARE does not excuse the resemblance.

The central theme of this picture is unconvicing: Why does this girl want to first abandon, then save her parents, when they have a highly antagonistic relationship? I would have liked this film better had Coraline been less of a brat and her parents less nasty.

Anonymous said...

Wew, that's a nice character
Thanks for reviews it,

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this honest review - I thought I was crazy after seeing so many people gush over this film.

Yes, it was beautiful to look at. Yes, everything was very nicely designed. Yes, it took a lot of chances and hopefully opened some doors.

But, like you said, the story wasn't very strong and didn't really get going until it got dark. I felt the dialog and voice acting to be flat. I also wasn't crazy about some of the acting, either. Very well animated, yes, but the acting? Hmmm...

S. Stephani Soejono said...

Hey Mark,

You've finally posted your Coraline review :). Just want to have a few discussion with you over this movie. I've actually waited for 5 years for this movie to get made because I love the book quite a bit.

The plot takes forever to get started
I'll have to agree with you on this one. The plot on the book started a little bit faster

Once the story does get started, the villain is poorly motivated. While the villain wants something, she has possessed it in the past and repeatedly abandoned it.
I'm not sure if you really can fault Selick on this, Mark. It was written like this on the original book and it is an adaptation. So should he have expanded on it? Sometimes it's better if the villain's motives aren't revealed.

Which brings me to another point, the staging of the scary scenes.

I thought Selick/the story crew could have milked the scary aspect of the Other Mother better, during the scene where Other Mother swallowed the key or when she threatened Coraline to stay in her world. Nothing can beat reading the book in a dark room alone, but I thought those scenes could have been scarier. What did you think?

Also was I the only one who thought the last third of the movie is rushed?

Thanks Mark :)

Hoggan said...

Good article Mark. This film was boring. What a let down.

Anonymous said...

Neil Gaiman's filmic track record remains unbroken. "Mirror Mask" and "Stardust" didn't work either, and both bombed. With stop motion being so labor intensive, why can't anyone build such a feature on solid narrative? "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" also suffered story problems; Gaiman and Selick aren't the only culprits.

Meg Shaw said...

I have to completely agree with your review. Very imaginative film but weak characterizations. It was unfortunate that the voice acting was so bad to start with.
I didn't understand why they need to include Wybie's character. He didn't really compliment Coraline's character in anyway. If anything, he seemed to bring out the her brattier aspects.
It's also too bad that the relationship between her and her mother was so flat. If there was a way to show more conflict and tenderness in that realtionship, and then intensify them in the other mother, it could have added a lot of motivation to everyone's actions.