Film Review | Sunday, 31 May 2009
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Kid's stuff? Not really

Remember the last time you were scared by a film? I certainly don’t. And by ‘scared’ I’m not talking about cheap frights; to paraphrase Dylan Moran on drugs: “At my age, I don’t need drugs, I just need to get out of a chair when I’m not expecting it and whoosh! What a rush!” No, I mean genuinely, lingeringly scared, as if you felt that the world of the film was quietly folding around you and at some point, will simply refuse to let you go.
No amount of gory slashers will do that, even if you are completely disgusted by on-screen violence. The best that will give you is a temporary visceral thrill (chill?), it has nothing to do with atmosphere or immersion: much less so if its principal characters are chronically unlikeable teenagers whose main function is to show as much flesh as possible (if female, anyway) before the chainsaw-wielding, hockey-mask-wearing psychopath (headgear and murder weapon are interchangeable) sees through any - inevitably idiotic - escape plan and rips them to shreds. Perhaps the only real thing that can scare a financially and politically aware adult is a good conspiracy thriller, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. I, for one, found JFK to be far more of a chilling experience than that dismal Exorcist remake, even though I generally dislike Oliver Stone. But if adults are too cynical to be scared by the supernatural, then it would probably follow that a conspiracy thriller could be taken apart with similar disenchantment: if ghost stories are too far-fetched, so are fictional corporate/political exposes with their glaring plot holes and quasi-parodic paranoia.
But perhaps we’ve got it all backwards. The main problem, it seems to me, is that there comes a point when we stop experiencing cinema in the same that way we experienced it as children. Now, before you accuse me of painting an idealised picture of both childhood and cinema-going I just want to assure you that yes, I am in fact doing so. And what’s more, I’m unapologetic about it. I’m unapologetic because I don’t believe it to be an airy-fairy argument. You can never be more immersed into a fantasy world than if you are a child and in any case, the most enduring feature of all fairy tales is their dark underbelly. And no, I’m not some third-rate academic trying to earn a research grant in some American university by exposing the shocking truth behind our most cherished childhood tales: look twice at any of the bedtime stories that were read to you, and notice how the line between safety and danger is ever so fragile, how innocence and experience flirt ominously and threaten to collapse into each other at any point. Even acclaimed British novelist A.S. Byatt (of Possession fame), in describing some of the motivations behind her latest historical fantasia, The Children’s Book, said that she felt liberated after Angela Carter - another seminal authoress renowned for her re-imaginings of classic fairy tales - told her how she put more stock in folk stories and children’s literature than she did in the trappings of the classic realist novel. All fairy stories are ultimately about some kind of growth, and as we stop growing, we seem to forget what a painful process it in fact is.
Neil Gaiman, with Coraline, pulled off that particularly difficult trick of writing a children’s book that is faithful to very rigorous genre conventions (Lewis Carroll is a key influence), while still writing a book that felt fresh, compulsively readable and yes, scary. In his trademark deadpan tone, that juggles a phantasmagorical cast of characters within a lucid literary style, Gaiman created an Alice for the noughties in Coraline. Out heroine is initially restless and crabby, but as she faces the unprecedented dangers in a parallel universe, she comes one step closer to coming of age. When the only child moves house with her workaholic parents, she takes to exploring around the house and its surrounding area. One day, she stumbles across a disused door in the drawing room, which opens to a brick wall. But when Coraline finds the key to the door, it plunges her into a parallel universe version of her home, populated by her ‘other’ mother and father who seem to be willing to give indulge her every whim (and make up for her ‘real’ parents’ shortcomings). At first, Coraline finds this all very appealing indeed, but it is only a matter of time until her other mother reveals far more disturbing machinations.
Henry Selick, stop-motion maestro behind The Nightmare Before Christmas (contrary to popular belief, that film was not directed by Tim Burton) is the ideal candidate for the project, at least on a visual level. With ‘Nightmare’, he has proven that he can do animation that’s both whimsical and dark, and this is very much suited to Gaiman’s omnivorous palette of the fantastic, which is always tempered by a healthy pinch of irony and black humour. Selick uses the source novel as a blueprint. While the bare bones of the plot are left more or less untouched, Selick builds on individual set pieces with a typical indulgence…and I bet that even the most dedicated of Gaiman fans won’t hold it against him. His approach to animation is actually quite heartening: in refusing to let go of his stop-motion roots, while still remaining in the running at the cutting-edge, he manages to blend puppetry with CGI transparently, and what ensues is pure magic. The impressive and eclectic cast also helps to build up an endearing and strangely believable world. Dakota Fanning is perhaps an obvious (though perfectly workable) choice as our heroine, but Teri Hatcher, voicing both the real and parallel mother is wonderfully surprising, while casting Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders as the eccentric has-been thespians is inspired.
The end result transcends the limits of a ‘kids movie’, and I don’t mean this in the Shrek sense of inserting a few innuendos and film references here and there. Selick has crafted a gorgeous artefact for all to enjoy, and its seductive atmosphere, teasingly straddling light and dark, will have you shuddering in your seat, just like you used to, once upon a time.

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