At first we were going to recommend that young children stay away from Henry Selick's splendid new stop-motion-animated fantasy, Coraline. That's because its imagery — not to mention its story of an alternate, doppelganger family living in a hole in the wall and a talking cat battling evil forces for the soul of a lonely girl — is so intense.
But go ahead and let the kids see it (Coraline is rated PG). The best children's stories have always been filled with disturbing elements like evil monarchs, magical mirrors, and witches baking kids into gingerbread cookies. Compared to Beauty and the Beast or the bloodthirsty tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, Selick's animated fable — he adapted it from the book by Neil Gaiman — is as reassuringly organic as the nuclear family itself. Of course, the emotional inner workings of that family are often the source of a young person's most terrifying imaginings.
Coraline (voice of Dakota Fanning), an only child, moves with her parents to the Pink Palace, a huge, wonderfully ramshackle Victorian house that has been divided into apartments. Upstairs lives the Amazing Bobinsky (Ian McShane), a foolish circus strong man. Downstairs in the garden apartment dwell a pair of dotty old entertainers, Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French), forever launching into forgotten songs and routines.
The Pink Palace is in rainy Oregon. Coraline is unaccustomed to the mud puddles and wet leaves plastered to the landscape, and especially unused to Wybie Lovat (Robert Bailey Jr.), the neighbor boy who's more of an antagonistic would-be best friend than a bully. He shows Coraline the deep well she must avoid, and also gives her a curious little rag doll with button eyes. It startlingly resembles Coraline. Later, she'll awaken in the middle of the night in her unfamiliar bedroom and follow an enigmatic talking cat (marvelously played by Keith David) into the very darkest corners of her fears.
But first, there are her mom and dad. The nameless Mother (Teri Hatcher) and Father (John Hodgman) are both writers, working on a gardening book even though neither of them actually gets out and works in the garden. In fact, Coraline's preoccupied folks seemingly spend all day in front of their computer screens, letting things like housekeeping and child rearing take a back seat. She isn't exactly neglected, but she certainly isn't being nourished. No wonder she's so astounded when, after following a mysterious jumping mouse to the little painted-over door in the living room, opening it, and passing though the tunnel to the Other Side, she discovers a mother who cooks lavish meals for her and a father who wants nothing but to please her. If it only weren't for their strange button eyes.
Coraline returns to the far side several times, each time going a little deeper into an elaborate, shadowy half-world of dreams, a true psychodrama with music to match, filed with snow globes, ghost kids, sinister games, and the riddle of the Little Me doll — everything under the eye of the watchful Cat. By the time Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night bursts out into the inky sky, the parents have snapped out of it and Coraline's pre-adolescent angst is well under control. At least, as much under control as such things can possibly be.
Selick's artwork is utterly enchanting, as are the characterizations. The qualities of childlike delight and terror he brought to The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach blossom even more fully in Coraline's waking nightmare. Freudians, you have our permission to knock yourselves out.
In case you haven't been paying attention, we're in the midst of a full-fledged screen animation renaissance these days, from Wall-E to Waltz with Bashir. As technique has grown more sophisticated, a few filmmakers are returning to timeless themes: parent-child relations, the need for a healthy planet, etc. The one questionable tech wrinkle is 3-D, that stepchild of the '50s now seemingly in full rebirth as a gimmick to lure couch potato audiences out from in front of their LCD screens and into the multiplexes. Coraline is in 3-D and it's arguably something to see, but the film doesn't really need it. Even without the gimmick it's already one of the best films of the new year.
With any luck, when she reaches her twenties Coraline won't travel to Mallorca for cheap thrills like the three young women in Oliver Blackburn's by-the-numbers thrilleroo Donkey Punch. And if she does, she surely won't mix Ecstasy with Turkish speedballs on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean with four drunken guys. The wise old Cat would not approve.
Tammi, Lisa, and Kim, three hotties from Leeds in the North of England out for giggly fun in the Islas Baleares, take up with Sean, his brother Josh, Marcus, and Bluey, the young English crew of a luxurious yacht whose owner is out of town. Someone suggests taking it out to sea. You just know this will end badly — exactly how badly is a function of the screenplay by Blackburn and David Bloom, which mostly recycles mayhem-at-sea motifs from Dead Calm, Purple Noon, and other yarns, with a Euro druggy twist that adds precious little to the suspense-less story.
Brits will no doubt grasp the class-conscious social intricacies among this mismatched group of partiers — three of the lads are public school boys, hare-lipped Bluey is a rougher sort (he wins the Ralph Brown prize this time out), the three gurls are strictly working class — but we can see everything we need to know in their stoned "top that" sex stories. Bluey's is the champ: the Donkey Punch, a clout to the back of the female partner's neck at the moment of orgasm, occasioning great joy. Except when it accidentally kills the girl.
Tom Burke, as Bluey, turns in the only performance with any complexity. Except for a few brief moments between Tammi (Nicola Burley) and Sean (Robert Boulter), the wallflowers at the orgy, Donkey Punch doesn't engage in unnecessary sissy stuff about the morality of dumping your friends' bodies at sea. That wouldn't be so bad, but the violence is also pretty unimaginative, more on the level of The Strangers or Shrooms than Patricia Highsmith. At least there's not a bag-head haunting the ship.