Adaptations of Neil Gaiman books are always encouraging prospects, and so the lure of a Nightmare Before Christmas-inspired film of Coraline, the award-winning novella, by director Henry Selick — in 3D, no less — seemed incredibly promising. It is somewhat strange, then, that the very reasons for the film’s success are the ones for which Gaiman can take the least credit.
Dakota Fanning — evidently now the go-to girl for any film in need of a plucky pre-adolescent — provides the voice of Coraline, a young adventurer who finds herself in a new house, bored and neglected by her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman; whose faintly nasal, suburban drawls fit the roles perfectly). The uncovering of a secret doorway leads to a parallel world, wherein lies — naturally — a family of doppelgangers, who tempt Coraline into leaving the real world forever in favour of their own, apparently superior, one.
The picture is beautifully produced with a mixture of stop-motion animation and CGI in a style familiar to every fan of Jack Skellington, and the incorporation of 3D technology takes place in a manner far less jarring than that of other recent attempts — indeed, it feels befitting of the fantastical, dreamlike nature. Aside from the obvious debt owed to Alice in Wonderland, Coraline pays homage to recent films like Pan’s Labyrinth and Spirited Away, whose senses of mystical, childlike wonder are lovingly replicated — with some help from supremely weird performances by Ian McShane and Jennifer Saunders.
Selick may be responsible for a triumphant aesthetic quality, but his and Gaiman’s efforts at re-writing the original short story are a far lesser accomplishment. The undeniably entertaining conceit of Coraline’s discovery and its consequences is marred by uneven — and, at times, truly dismal — pacing. The first third or so seems overly preoccupied with rather self-indulgent visual display, and whilst the midsection trundles along nicely, the writing pair appear to realise three-quarters of the way through that all of a sudden there’s an awful lot of action to dispense with, and the whole affair takes on the feel of a videogame: overly task-oriented and slightly repetitive, with Coraline dashing from one location to the next in search of items to complete her quest like Lara Croft-lite.
Still, it would take a true grinch not to take some pleasure from the sheer inventiveness of the medium, or Selick’s shrewd ability to meld modern contrivances — mobile phones, a new model VW Beetle — and old-fashioned relics — cabaret shows, vaudeville performers, and a Stepford-esque alternate reality — with such a daring insouciance. Coraline may be flawed, but it’s still the most inventive piece of animation to be released this year.