As an adult with no children, what do I look for in an animated film? A good story well told that works for all ages, nodding to adult audiences without layering on the irony too heavily. So it's with great pleasure that I report Henry Selick's Coraline is a thorough success, visually wondrous and a hundred times more human and vibrant than that better known Pixar offering from last year - you know, the one about the robot. Actors often record their dialogue for animated films long before the finished product winds up in theatres, so I don't know how long ago Dakota Fanning gave her performance as Coraline. Fanning is out this week with the sci-fi film Push, her first semi-adult role. Fanning would be too old to play Coraline in a live-action film, but her vocal work here as the selfish Coraline is pitch-perfect. When Coraline discovers a hidden passageway to an alternate world in which her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) are a little too perfect, Fanning makes Coraline's desire to stay in this happy universe is palpable.
The entire voice cast here is strong, with Hatcher's nicely differentiated two roles and Hodgman dialing back his "Mac vs. PC" persona. Ian McShane brakes out his Russian accent for a warm turn as an acrobat and circus impresario. Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French of Absolutely Fabulous are Coraline's batty downstairs neighbors and Keith David voices a cat whose powers of speech prove especially useful to Coraline. In so many Disney and Pixar films the talking animals are just comic sidekicks, but David's feline has agency, key information, and a bone to pick with Hatcher's "Other Mothe;" he makes an ideal mentor/foil for Coraline.
What a beautiful looking movie Coraline is. I suppose I could research the specific processes used to make Coraline look like a children's book come to life, but where's the fun in that? It's enough to say that the visuals are genuinely illustrative, tactile and funky enough to ground the story in an emotional reality but also wildy imaginative and scary where appropriate. The faces are all expressive; I especially liked Coraline and her father. But there's no attempt for photorealism or anything close, and the stylization just adds to the sense that we're in a world similar to but not exactly our own. Coraline is about the nooks and crannies of childhood, those moments that seemed boring or inconsequential at the time but in retrospect are precious when compared to the banalities of adulthood. That's a concept so low and risky that the Pixar folks would run away screaming, but the makers of Coraline have rendered it with a mix of technical wizardry and unabashed heart.