Neil Gaiman is often viewed as a downright genius with a knack for good, dark fantasy stories with intriguing characters … That, many of us already know. His fantastic comic book works and adult fiction rank him with the best of today’s pop-literary artists, and yet some of his best writing of all is that which is intended for children (though with a certain adult sensibility). Put him together with the right type of visual artists and you get collaborative efforts that seem absolutely inspired, utilizing the best of Gaiman’s satiric wit and surreal sensibilities. With Henry Selick’s take on Gaiman’s Coraline, the dark magic of Gaiman’s creation is given a less realistic look with a whimsical spin… but Gaiman’s own, unique vision is still evident throughout. The Blu-ray and DVD releases are astounding, but only the Blu-ray edition (in both 2-D/3-D) truly captures the visual marvel of Selick’s colorful set design and his unique stop-motion puppets.
Caroline— no, wait, excuse me… Coraline Jones (she wouldn’t have it any other way) is bored out of her 11-year-old, blue-haired skull when her mother and father move her and their word-crunching computers to a Victorian mansion in Oregon. Rather than bother her workaholic parents, Coraline (voiced, pitch-perfect, by Dakota Fanning) is sent off on household mission to count the windows and doors— something, anything to hold her curiosity in thrall for a bit to let her parents finish their gardening catalog.
While on the household hunts, Coraline meets up with the aged burlesque queens, and Scottie fanciers, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French of Ab-Fab fame) along with ringmaster of the promising mouse circus, Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane, letting it all hang out with a florid Russian accent). These characters are lifted nearly intact from the book and somewhat improved upon… given more interesting backstories, and adding more humor and intrigue to Coraline’s household adventures. Then there’s “Wybie,” (Robert Bailey, Jr.), who initially comes off as a stock annoying kid character (he was developed specifically for the film so that Coraline would not be bound by the literary convention of internal dialogues) but actually turns out to be a well-developed and quite crucial addition to Gaiman’s original lineup of the bizarre, the mundane and the truly dangerous. Speaking of which, Teri Hatcher turns in a terrific dual-voice performance as both Mel Jones, Coraline’s pre-occupied and slightly irritated mother, and her “Other-Mother,” the so-called “beldam,” the razor-thin witch that offers children a choice between the illusion of a perfect, loving family or complete entrapment and utter disposability. John Hodgman, the PC in those Mac commercials, does a dual-turn as Coraline’s father and “Other-Father,” one of the film’s more horrifying and pitiful personalities in the film. Coraline presents a cautionary tale for children, and Selick is only too pleased to ramp up the creepiest aspects of the book (well some, anyway), as well as more bizarre events only hinted or alluded to in the book (canine taxidermy, for instance). Characters are greatly expanded in this adaptation, and the film replaces Coraline’s reality-based hum-drum world with a more whimsical environment where the storyline may now flex its 3-D muscle and wow the viewer with a visual immersion into Coraline’s extraordinary experiences.
With very little CGI enhancement (mostly regulated to certain special effects like fog and rain), Coraline offered Henry Selick and his talented production crew a chance to really stretch both the boundaries of stop-motion animation and stereoscopic 3-D techniques specifically created for the film. The characters are perfectly visualized and come across as different in shape and form than those found in the graphic novel adaptation of Gaiman’s novella. Selick and his crew create a richly detailed environment that enhances Coraline’s view of the world… She’s ever curious that the well might be bottomless, or that the decrepit garden out back might contain a world of wonders, and Selick captures that performance perfectly within his unique style of puppetry and animation. (Continued below)
The film was produced in 3-D to more fully realize Coraline’s stomping grounds and the strange “perfect” place beyond the bricked up portal found in the living room wall. While I’m not a huge fan of 3-D (more gimmick than storytelling necessity is my take), I felt it truly added depth to Coralinewhen I saw the film in the theater. It allowed me to feel and experience the Pink Palace Apartments and the world beyond as Coraline Jones herself was experiencing it. The only drawback in the theater was the lack of a vivid projected image. 3-D tends to lose color saturation and sharpness on the big screen— it’s the fault of the process and those big, polarized Elvis Costello-style specs audiences must wear—but on an HDTV with the video settings tweaked just right, the Blu-ray 3-D viewing experience is fairly impressive.
While the standard-def DVD is well done as far as DVD releases go (the 2-Disc offers many of the Blu-ray’s special features), the 3-D experience is better achieved via the Blu-ray disc. But while 3-D looked good in high-def, I found myself truly blown-away with the Blu-ray’s 2-D version. Without the 3-D effect, I found a richly saturated, highly detailed image that just about pops off the display. Colors never appeared blown out (even the brown-grey “reality” of Coraline’s world has a rich hue), while the weave of clothing and strands of hair had a razor sharpness that I felt was lost when viewing the film in 3-D (chalk it up to stereoscopic 3-D glasses once again). The 2-D version (1080p/VC-1) easily boasts some of the best BD mastering I’ve seen for a family film and is worth the price alone as you get a sense of the 3-D effects in certain scenes without the irritation of a less-than-robust image. By way of example, the garden sequences were 3-D standouts when I saw the film theatrically, but though they look fantastic in hi-def you still get a real sense of depth in the 2-D version on Blu-ray. Still… 1080p in 3-D looks pretty cool, and you won’t mind showing it off, for the amount of detail, though slightly blurred at times and not offering near the level of reference-quality richness in the 2-D version, is better than I had hoped for when I loaded the disc for a first look. The audio (DVD: DD 5.1 / Blu-ray: DTS-HD Audio Master 5.1) delivers a mostly restrained mix of soundtrack and ambiance that is notable for crisp highs and mid-range allowing the vocal work to be clearly defined. The one true sing-along song in the film (the “Other-Father Song” by They Might Be Giants) is a real treat to hear in high-def DTS 5.1.
Coraline is one of a few 3-D releases out there on Blu-ray at the moment, with more to follow. As the technology develops, with 3-D becoming integrated into HDTV sets, offering the chance of viewing a film in 3-D without the glasses, the process might be easier on the eyes. As it stands, my feeling is that 3-D makes for a distraction of sorts, the needless kind that tends to break suture with the story and characters.
Coraline on Blu-ray offers a wealth of special features aside from the 2-D/3-D versions of the film. The DVD and BD versions contain four pairs of purple-colored paper TrioScopic (magenta/green) 3-D glasses with the Coraline logo that are easily replaceable through online sources if the original ones are ever lost. The 2-Disc DVD and BD versions also offer a digital copy for computers, iPods and other digital devices. The Blu-ray release contains a standard-DVD copy of the film that comes in handy since Blu-ray has yet to make it to the family fun wagon for those long trips.
The 2-disc DVD and Blu-ray contain the director’s commentary (a very enthusiastic Selick loves to talk about the soup-to-nuts creation of the characters and sets based on the book) along with commentary from composer Bruno Coulais (hardly there). The two formats also feature a number of deleted scenes (with commentary), an extensive and very interesting featurette called “The Making of Coraline” (several chapters giving an in-depth look at the production of the film from the evolution of the story to the special effects, 3-D preparations and completion of the project), and another featurette called “Voicing the Characters” wherein the voice actors and director relate their experience on the film during the voiceover sessions. While the 2-disc DVD offers most of the main features found on the Blu-ray disc (the single disc DVD offers only the director/composer commentary), the BD specific features are pretty cool, too.
The Blu-ray exclusive features contain: U-Control, a Blu-ray picture-in-picture speciality, that allows viewers to go behind-the-scenes with Gaiman, Selick and the LAIKA studio crew to see conceptual art, development of the puppets and sets, and a way to view storyboard-to-scene/animatic-to-scene/voiceover comparisons. In addition there’s yet another featurette called “Creepy Coraline” where Selick and Neil Gaiman discuss the creepy, crawly creatures and some of the darker elements of this compelling children’s classic. But wait, there’s more: Viewers also get a look at “The World According To Henry,” in which the director discusses how he became involved in the Coraline project and the approach he took to putting the story and characters on film via stop-motion animation. Blu-ray owners get some BD-Live features available only with an Internet connection via their BD player (mostly trailers and ads, but check back with the BD disc via BD-Live as there can be updates with this new and evolving feature) and My Scenes Sharing, where you can post your favorite scenes from the film by bookmarking them via the BD-Live interactive features. If you’ve got D-Box in your easy chair, it’s got that, too.
Is Coraline worth the spend? As a highly entertaining film geared toward boys, girls and grown-ups alike… absolutely. As a top-notch Blu-ray disc that offers reference quality video (not so much on the audio)… definitely.
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