"He's not drunk mom, he's just eccentric."
Stop motion animation is a cinematic technique that's almost as old as film itself, with its first use dating all the way back to 1897. As filmmakers grew in their techniques and use of the technology, they were able to blend live actors with stop motion creatures, often calling on the services of Willis O'Brien who created the creature animation for The Lost World (1925) & King Kong (1933). The most famous stop motion animator of all time has got to be Ray Harryhausen, who's work on sci-fi and fantasy films of the 50s and 60s is legendary, and it was his work that would go on to influence a generation of filmmakers such as Dennis Muren, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg & Peter Jackson.
In the early 90s, Tim Burton turned to another animator dabbling in stop motion to realize his vision of a twisted Christmas tale called The Nightmare Before Christmas. It's criminal to me that many people still seem to think that Burton directed the film, and that Henry Selick, the man who actually did direct it, gets very little recognition. Selick also directed 1996's James and the Giant Peach, and the took a brief detour into live action filmmaking with 2001's Monkeybone before taking a hiatus. During this hiatus, he created some stop motion effects for director Wes Anderson's 2004 The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and was working with Anderson to adapt another Roald Dahl novel, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, into a stop motion feature, when he decided to turn his talents towards adapt Neil Gaiman's novella Coraline instead.
Coraline (Dakote Fanning) is the eponymous heroine of the film, a twelve-year old girl who moves with her parents into a strange apartment building in the Pacific Northwest. Her parents are both botanists who are working on a gardening journal, leaving very little time and attention for their rambunctious daughter. While exploring her new home one day, Coraline stumbles on a small door in the living room that she talks her mother into opening for her. It leads only to a bricked up wall, much to Coraline's disappointment. That night while she's asleep however, she is awoken by a mouse who leads her to the door, which now leads to a magical portal. When she crawls through the portal, she's taken into a sunnier, more inviting version of her home, with much more attentive versions of her parents. Only something is amiss in this world, as everyone has buttons for eyes.
Her "other" mother (Teri Hatcher) in this world dotes on her, giving her attention and giving into her whims, which is what Coraline so desperately craves. She begins making nightly visits to her "other" home, which is populated with button eye versions of her neighbors as well, like the circus master Bobinsky (Ian McShane) and the retired burlesque performers Madames Spink & Forcible (Jennifer Saunders & Dawn French from Absoultely Fabulous). There's even a less annoying version of a young boy named Wyborne (Robert Bailey, Jr) who hangs around Coraline in the real world, but has had his mouth sewn shut in this world.
Another character that exists in both worlds is a black cat (voiced fantastically in the "other" world by Keith David) who warns Coraline that there's more to this seemingly perfect world than meets the eye. Before long, her other mother is trying to convince her to sew buttons in her eyes so she can stay in this world forever. But is it a trap? Has this happened before with other children, and if so, can Coraline try and outsmart her other mother to rescue the lost souls of this world?
It's an incredibly dense and macabre plot, but it works exquisitely. Selick has created a magnificent world that compliments Gaiman's prose wonderfully. The stop motion animation gives the film an eerie, otherworldly quality that traditional or cg animation would not have achieved. The film holds a special place in my life as it's the first film that Clementine say all the way through in a movie theater. She was a little over two at the time, and in retrospect, it probably wasn't the best parenting move, but she loved the film and still does. In fact, it's odd that she's not scared of the film in the least, even though it is quite scary.
I wish I had seen the film in 3D as many people who saw it that way told me it was one of the best uses of the technology they'd seen. That's understandable, as the film doesn't seem concerned with "stuff flying out of the screen" gags, and more than likely relied on the depth of field that great 3D that lend to an already good film. Coraline is one of the best animated films of the last decade because it deals with fantastical elements in a way that children can easily relate to, and Coraline is a very relatable protagonist for little girls in particular.
The voice work is great across the board. Ian McShane is great as always, as are the AbFab ladies. John Hodgman is great as Coraline's dad (and the song he sings was written by They Might Be Giants). Fanning and Hatcher do a great job as well. The score by Bruno Coulais is phenomenal, featuring eerie, creepy choral work, and lots of strings. It's a great listen on its own, making me miss the days of the "isolated score" track on dvds (I can't be the only one that loved those. The one on Amadeus is AMAZING).
Overall, I think that this is a great film for kids and adults (though you may want to leave the two year olds at home, what can I say, I'm an over-zealous dad that loves taking his girls to the movies). If you own a 3D tv, there is a 3D blu-ray release out there, but be warned, the anaglyphic 3D version that comes with the regular blu-ray does not work particularly well. The picture quality is incredible on that blu-ray though, and it's on regular rotation in our house, and if you're lucky, it should be on regular rotation in yours as well.